Iowa FD launches program to connect residents with local resources

The Iowa City Fire Department launched the Navigator Assistance Program last month to connect residents in need to Steve Nachazel, the county's first social services navigator

Izabela Zaluska
The Gazette

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Deputy Fire Chief Eric Nurnberg recalls the day he responded to a medical emergency in a mobile home park.

It was during the winter, and the furnace was broken, creating an "unfit place for a family to live," given how cold it was.

Firefighters "are going to places every day that I'm not going to see or nobody else in social services is going to see," said Steve Nachazel, Johnson County's first social services navigator. (Photo/Iowa City FD)

Nurnberg called Amy Correia, who was the county's director of social services and a city council member at the time.

"The family had a new furnace in their home by the end of the week," Nurnberg said. "That doesn't mean that this community offers a solution to every single challenge, but I know that members of the community trust our firefighters.

"That's because our firefighters ... have demonstrated that they'll respond and give help no matter what the situation is."

Now, when firefighters encounter someone with a broken furnace, water problems, front steps in need of repair or some other assistance, they have a process to connect people to someone who can help.

The Iowa City Fire Department launched the Navigator Assistance Program late last month to connect residents in need to Steve Nachazel, Johnson County's first social services navigator.

Nachazel, who was hired in February 2020, assesses people's needs and makes referrals to appropriate agencies or nonprofits.

Nurnberg, who has been with the fire department for 20 years, described the Navigator Assistance Program as "a modest program that we hope will have a big impact."

Since the program launched Sept. 30, two people have been referred to Nachazel. Both people, Nachazel said, had needs related to disabilities.

Firefighters, he said, "are going to places every day that I'm not going to see or nobody else in social services is going to see," Nachazel said.

"They're going to be witnessing both surroundings and individuals that are sometimes in need of services or assistance that may not have a way to readily connect to it."

More than 60 percent of the fire department's calls, Nurnberg said, are related to medical emergencies. Another portion are citizen assist calls, such as someone with mobility challenges who needs help.

The fire department also is part of the Multi-Disciplinary Team, which involves leaders from area fire departments, law enforcement, Johnson County Ambulance Service and social service agencies.

The team takes a holistic approach to helping residents facing significant challenges, Nurnberg said.

As the immediate recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic has started to slow, Nurnberg said the discussion has turned to providing compassionate care to residents still reeling from the effects of the pandemic.

"One thing that quickly became apparent because we already had the multi-disciplinary team functioning is how can we, as firefighters and EMTs in the community, better assess and diagnose that someone might need a little bit of help," Nurnberg said.

The Navigator Assistance Program, he said, aims to provide assistance before residents need help from the multi-disciplinary team.

Information about social service agencies, for example, is now on city fire equipment, with firefighters encouraged to read up on the services.

The program has the potential to evolve to "where we can serve as a maybe more effective augment to the navigator," Nurnberg said.

"If we can play some modest role in making that easier and giving members of the community not only more information but a greater degree of trust in the social services network here, then I think that we'll have done a greater job of fulfilling our oath to serve," Nurnberg said.

Individuals needing assistance in Johnson County can contact Nachazel by calling (319) 356-6090 or email him at

In Cedar Rapids, the fire department has programs focused on assisting older adults, in cooperation with the Heritage Area Agency on Aging on Aging and Linn County, city spokeswoman Maria Johnson said.

Frontline firefighters, she said, provide referral information to people needing assistance.


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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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