Fire calls up in 2021, chief reports

Benny Westcott

The Sweet Home Fire District made 3,385 runs in 2021 — 865 were fire-related — a 20% increase from the previous year, Fire Chief Dave Barringer reported at a Tuesday, Jan. 18, fire board meeting.

He attributed this to the district’s growing population (the city boasts 10,285 residents, according to the U.S. Census, a jump from 9,619 in 2019) and an influx of people “migrating” into town over the summer. 

“Everybody comes to our lake and campgrounds,” he said. 

Barringer cited other factors as well, including the ubiquity of cellphones — which allows more “passersby” to report fires or other emergencies despite a lack of immediate detail — and a heightened awareness after 2020’s intense wildfire season (the Oregon Department of Forestry recorded 2,027 in the state that year). As a result, he said, people were more likely to report suspicious smoke or odors. 

Last summer, Barringer adjusted to increased activity by running three part-time employees per shift instead of two, increasing minimum staffing levels and adding more people on overtime. 

“For us, our summer months are super-concerning,” he said. “Sportsman’s Holiday, fireworks, the Jamboree — those things require staffing. We get divided up pretty quickly in the summer, especially with our increased call volume.” 

Lift assists were also trending upward, he added. 

“Maybe it’s because people are staying home and not going to care facilities as much, because they are concerned about being around other people that might be infected [by COVID-19],” he said. “They need our assistance.” 

He speculated that people also contacted the department for access to medical facilities. 

“[They are] harder to get into these days, unless you get there by ambulance,” he said, adding that ambulances can transport patients to hospitals faster, as well. 

A lack of available local beds has become concerning as the coronavirus continues to plague the mid-valley. According to Barringer, the new year has brought an influx of patients needing to be referred elsewhere. When the 25-bed Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital’s been at capacity, Sweet Home-area patients have sometimes been transferred to the 70-bed Samaritan Albany General Hospital, or the 188-bed Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Corvallis. Full hospitals, Barringer explained, can create problems for fire departments throughout the county. 

“We are kicking people to the next place, and Lebanon Fire [District] is having to do most of the transports,” he said. “As a result, sometimes they won’t be available when we need them. The problem starts to snowball. But we will work through it and do the best we can.” 

Although the need to transport people from Samaritan Lebanon has “not been historical,” he added, it’s often become necessary in the last month or so. “We noticed it, I would say, in December, but it didn’t seem significant,” he said. “January has been more noticeable.” 

Beds and space remain a problem, as does hospital understaffing. 

“Among doctors and nurses, there isn’t the staffing that there was,” he said. “It’s somewhat related to people getting sick with COVID, as well as the mandates.” 

Arrivals are sometimes even forced to wait even after being accepted. (Barringer cited “huge wait times” at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, for instance.) 

“They’ll sit there and wait, and then a COVID patient changes the whole deal, and everybody has to wait to get forward,” Barringer said. “Everyone has to be patient, but if you are having a heart attack, it’s hard to be patient, so I get the issue with that. This isn’t the norm, and it’s a concern for me. I don’t want people to have to wait, but we only have so many resources.”

Barringer noted that hospital space shortages have profound effects on his own personnel’s availability. On Jan. 18, he said, the department dealt with four calls at the same time, twice in one day. As Sweet Home deployed its three medic units, a Lebanon unit handled the fourth call on both occasions.

According to Barringer, the average “call time” for staff to transport a patient to Lebanon is 80 minutes roundtrip. That total increases to 134 minutes for a ride to Corvallis. 

“When our people are on the road longer and have to go further,” he said, “it means that they are not able to take care of as many patients.” 

“If our staff is gone, the next response we have is volunteer-based,” he added. “But there are only so many bullets in the gun, and when you are out of bullets, you have nothing to send.” 

The number of department volunteers sits at 38, down from 48 six months ago. They require six weekends of training, and some, Barringer said, “don’t want to deal with COVID restrictions, filling out a religious exemption or getting a shot.” 

“We had a couple of volunteers move away to different areas, and some retired,” he continued. “Some of those volunteers had been around for a long time and were bigger participants.” 

The resulting decrease is part of an overall national trend. Barringer noted that the national average of volunteer retention is 20%. “Out of every five people, you are keeping one,” he said. “We trained five or six people and have gotten one or two that have stuck.” 

As local departments struggle to answer every call, they’ve turned to their neighbors for help. 

“There has been a lot more coordination between all the departments, Lebanon, Brownsville, Mohawk Valley, and Sisters, than there has been in the past,” he said. “Linn County is solid about helping each other out. I’m working with other chiefs and hospitals. Ultimately, systems are systems, and as increased numbers of people need help and it goes beyond what your system can handle, you need to come up with innovative ways to do what you have to do.”