Fire calls drop in 2011; medical calls set record

Sean C. Morgan

2011 was the Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District’s busiest ever for medical calls, while its overall call load was its second highest ever.

The total number of fire calls last year fell to 200 from 217, while the number of medical calls increased to 2,200 from 1,983, a total of 2,351, up from 2,200.

“It’s right there,” said Fire Chief Mike Beaver, near the highest total number of calls ever.

But not quite. The highest total number of calls for the district was in 2006 when it had 2,391.

Last year is notable because it had 2,200 medical calls. The district had 2,001 medical calls in 2006 while running 390 fire calls, the most in Sweet Home’s history.

The district has had a history of increasing its call load by 200 to 300 about every three years, and then call loads stabilize at the new level. But the district broke that pattern after the last general increase in 2004, when the number of medical calls increased above 1,900 for the first time, up from 1,689 in 2003.

From 2004 to 2011, the number of medical calls has been in the 1,900 to 2,000 range, while the district has recorded a little more than 200 fire calls per year, with the exception of 2006.

The district call loads peaked in 2006, Beaver said, and in the past four to five years, the total number of calls has ranged around 2,100 to 2,200.

Unusually, the district’s call levels didn’t slow down in the last three months of 2011, Beaver said. They’re continuing at a fast pace so far this year too. Thirteen days into the new year, the district was pushing 80 calls.

The district is handling the call loads all right, Beaver said, and he plans to keep staffing levels where they have been the past several years.

“I’m not planning on reducing the work force,” Beaver said, but that’s subject to funding resources, which is a crapshoot these days.

The district employs a fire chief, an administrative assistant, six full-time paramedic-firefighters, three battalion chiefs and six interns. It has three resident volunteers and about 50 regular volunteers.

“Fire equipment is the best we’ve had in decades, and that’s all because of the equipment bond we passed back in 2006.”

The district hasn’t purchased a new ambulance since 2008, Beaver said. He is unsure whether the district can afford a new one this year, but he is planning to budget for it, purchasing it if funding permits.

“Other than that, I don’t have plans for budgeting any apparatus,” Beaver said.

The district will have to begin using narrowband digital radios next year, so it will finalize the implementation of its new communication equipment this year.

The Federal Communications Commission has mandated the use of narrowband to help handle the growing number of other uses for the airwaves, such as cell phones.

All of the district’s apparatuses have narrowband radios, and the district has many narrowband-capable portable radios, Beaver said. It still needs one radio for an ambulance and probably another half dozen portable radios.

The district is ahead of many others in complying with the upcoming change, Beaver said.

The fire service currently uses four frequencies, Beaver said. In the next couple of months Fire Four, one of the district’s channels, will switch to narrowband to begin testing.

“I’m hoping we’re going to be as good as we are now,” Beaver said. “I don’t know that’s going to be possible. We’re taking a wideband and trying to maintain the same level of communications with narrowband.”

The narrow band technology may require more repeaters, he said. The district and others using the 9-1-1 dispatch center have already been paying for the upgrades.

The district has already gone through some fairly extensive testing with Motorola, Beaver said, and they’re about 96 percent sure that communications will continue working at the same level.