Stats say 2019 was SHFAD’s third-busiest

Sean C. Morgan

The Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance posted its third-busiest year in 2019, with 2,704 medical and fire calls.

That’s a 2.5-percent increase from 2,639 in 2018 but lower than 2017, which totaled 2,761 calls. The district’s record call load was in 2014, with 2,792 total calls. A decade ago, 2009, the district recorded 2,005 total calls.

Of last year’s calls, 2,293 were for medical emergencies, a 2.7-percent increase from 2018, with 2,232 medical calls. The district had as many medical calls in 2016. It had more in 2017 with 2,349 medical calls. The year 2014 was the busiest ever for Sweet Home ambulances, with 2,417 medical calls. In 2009, the district had 1,879 medical calls.

Medical calls include motor vehicle collisions.

The district transported 1,224 patients to hospitals in 2019, down from 1,271 in 2018 and a record 1,349 in 2017. In 2009, the district transported 936 patients.

The district had its second-highest number of fire calls in 2019, although the total number of significant structure fires seems to be lower. The district had 411 fire calls, just one less than the district’s record number of fire calls set in 2017. In 2018, the district received 407 fire calls. In 2009, it had 126 fire calls.

Fire Chief Dave Barringer said Sweet Home recorded 14 significant structure fires in 2019, while in 2014, 22 out of 375 were considered significant. The district has ranged around that number until the past couple of years.

“It feels like there’s been less,” Barringer said. “It’s hard to recognize – we just had one; but I feel like there’s a decrease in frequency.”

He said the fire district is doing more business inspections and fire prevention, and he believes the public is using cell phones to report fires more quickly. Fire calls range from odor and smoke investigations to hillside fires – which usually turn out to be controlled slash burns, burn complaints and major structure fires.

Barringer thinks that may also contribute to the higher call loads overall as firefighters respond to controlled burns as well. Last year, they also responded to early wildland fire, including a large fire off Santiam Terrace, which occurred prior to fire season and before Oregon Department of Forestry activated its summer firefighting crew.

Battalion chiefs have made a difference in recent years as well, arriving quickly and starting the fight against the fires immediately with their brush rigs, he said, and on their own, Sweet Home police officers began helping out roughly four years ago.

All of that made a difference in a fire that was confined to a single bedroom Jan. 6.

Police officers are already driving around the city, Barringer said, and they’ve been responding to fires. By the time firefighters arrive, police have often assessed the situation and can report whether doors are locked and whether pets or people may be inside.

They may take action and help the battalion chief, who is typically the first firefighter on the scene, Barringer said. In the Jan 6 fire, at which Barringer was the first firefighter to arrive, an officer broke open the front door and opened a gate so Barringer could get a garden hose into his hands immediately.

“That is huge,” he said, adding that in the past, police responded and helped with traffic control, but they’ve stepped up their involvement.

“If they’re not busy, they make (fire calls) a priority,” Barringer said. “The communication’s way better.”

The district is handling the increased call load well, he said. In addition to three paid paramedic-firefighters working and two part-time medics daily, the district has two grant-funded firefighters who work day shifts. In general, the district is able to staff three ambulances total during the day when call loads are heaviest and is relying less on Lebanon for backup in recent years.

Additionally, Barringer and Doug Emmert, part-time deputy chief, are able to help with medical calls.

The district wrapped up most of its bond-related expenditures last year. District voters approved a six-year $1.575 million bond in 2016 to pay for two new ambulances, a rescue vehicle and a brush rig for the battalion chiefs, along with various equipment.

“Everybody’s (priority) list is starting to get smaller,” Barringer said.

Remaining bond projects include a remodel of living quarters at the Fire Hall, the district’s main station, along with a new shop building that will provide additional space for apparatus.

The planned living quarters are in the permit phase, Barringer said, and he expects to begin working on the shop building in April.

Thanks to a high cost, the district abandoned plans last year to add living quarters and a bay to the Foster Substation.

Barringer said the district’s highest priorities now are new siding and paint at the Foster and Crawfordsville substations. The district also will do some paving and fencing, build a small addition with shed roofing to serve as a bay for a brush rig and create a turnout room that is separate from the interior vehicle bays.

Using funds donated by the estate of William Moody, the district is planning to purchase a boat from Albany Fire Department and a side-by-side all-terrain vehicle.

Albany recently purchased a new boat and put an older boat up for sale for $20,000, Barringer said. It’s not easy to dive off the district’s existing boats.

The side-by-side will help rescue workers and medics carry equipment off road when they respond to places like Blue Pool, which require a lengthy hike to reach patients, he said.