Numbers up for Salem FD calls

SALEM – City firefighters responded to a lot more fires and other calls in 2012, with a 57 percent overall increase in the number of structure fires, including two arsons.

“The report speaks for itself. I believe we earn our money,” Fire Chief Jeff Hughes said.

According to the 2012 activity report, the department handled 1,615 incidents – that’s a 14 percent increase over the 1,415 incidents handled in 2011 and included 75 fires, with 30 of those fires involving structures.

A fire in a downtown building on State Street in August was declared arson and remains under investigation. Another fire declared arson involved a chair and area rug set on fire at a Fourth Street residence in October. The female resident was indicted for aggravated arson last month.

The department also responded to motor vehicle fires, dumpster fires, brush fires and cooking fires – pretty much anything that caught fire that didn’t involve a structure.

Once again, the majority of the department’s calls were first responder/EMS calls, with 851 calls for an increase of 9 percent over last year’s 780 calls. The department does not transport, but runs to emergencies when an ambulance is called. All firefighters have EMT basic training, which allows them to do life-saving measures such as opening up an airway by inserting a tube, providing oxygen, administering CPR and providing saline.

Hughes said the department provides a good service. Every year the numbers change and they have no way of predicting what’s going to happen.

This year he provided a bigger breakdown of the incident numbers to give residents a better idea of what they do.

Besides fires and EMS calls, the breakdown of incidents included:

19 extrications (a 20.83 percent decrease from 2011)

146 HazMat/hazardous condition calls (a 2 percent increase from 2011)

302 service calls (a 27.43 percent increase from 2011)

86 good intent calls (a 13 percent increase from 2011)

115 false alarms (a less than 1 percent decrease from 2011

21 severe weather/complaints (a 31 percent increase from 2011).

Hughes explained that service calls can include anything from a flooded basement to removing a bat from a residence or assisting another agency on a lockout situation. He also said that at lease 10 of the calls included a public service, such as using a ladder truck to help a business or organization install a new flag.

A good intent call could be a call cancelled enroute by the dispatcher or a neighbor calling in an illegal fire which turns out to be a legal cookout. False alarms deal with system malfunctions or alarm activations, including smoke alarms or carbon monoxide detectors.

When people think extrications, they likely envision the jaws being used at an accident scene, but it can also involve getting someone out of a malfunctioning elevator. HazMat can involve a suspicious substance in a creek or checking for hazardous gases at a lift station for the utilities department or cleaning up a gas spill at a gas station or motor vehicle accident.

Last year the department handled more severe weather situations, with a big wind storm toppling trees all over the city during the summer.

According to the report, the department’s average response time was 3.62 minutes. The loss of property and contents recorded was $209,950 and the value of saved property and contents was estimated at $22.9 million based on property values.

The number of training hours dropped to 945, more than half of the number of training hours in 2011, but Hughes said the training courses in 2011 were more specialized. In 2011, each firefighter also had to complete an EMT refresher course which accounted for 40 hours per person.

The department also conducted 420 inspections/reinspections, issued six demolition permits, conducted 32 classes or tours involving an estimated 1,952 people and collected grants and fees totaling $174,177.

The majority of the grant money came from the SAFER grant, which stands for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, and was used to pay for two laid-off firefighters who brought back on the job in 2010. The grant expires this spring, with the salaries for the two firefighters now part of the department budget.

Other grants covered equipment replacement, HazMat, and EMS. They can also bill for their response to some hazardous situations that take a lot of time, such as cleanup of a major fuel spill.