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Pandemic hasn't helped DeKalb County fire departments meet national staffing recommendations

DeKalb Fire Chief Jeff McMaster said the National Fire Protection Association Standard 1710 is considered the gold standard for how firefighters should respond to emergencies or how fast they should get to the scene, a standard career departments strive to meet.

But not every department can meet that gold standard, McMaster said, especially in the age of COVID-19. The DeKalb Fire Department comes very close, but call volume keeps increasing every year, he said.

“And we are trying to level out staffing [with that],” McMaster said. “That’s where you make that delicate balance.”

According to the standard, staffing for career fire departments is 15 firefighters for a low hazard full alarm, or a residential single-family home. The standard also recommends 28 firefighters respond to a medium hazard alarm, or three-story garden apartments, and 43 firefighters for a high hazard alarm, or a high-rise building.

“While it’s not the law of the land, it’s really for the most part … best practices or striving to achieve best practices,” Sycamore Fire Chief Pete Polarek said.

Staffing and response time

The DeKalb Fire Department has a staff of 13 firefighters per shift, not including fire chiefs. Generally, there are two firefighters on each engine and two on an ambulance, McMaster said. The Sycamore Fire Department has a standard minimum staffing of six firefighters per shift, Polarek said.

McMaster said the DeKalb department is almost up to that recommended standard on their own: The first fire engine arrives on scene for low or medium hazard alarms in an average of four minutes. For a full alarm, it’s eight minutes. But the department, like a lot in the county, relies on mutual aid to get up to that recommended standard.

Polarek said that also applies to the Sycamore department. He said the challenge with any consensus standard is there is a wide variance of types of fire departments across the country, whether with full-time career firefighters, part time or volunteer. Each department’s designation is decided upon by the local municipality or village.

Polarek said suburban rural fire departments like Sycamore have a much more time difficult time meeting standards than their neighbors in Chicago, with a much larger staff and a geographic grid to make point of responses closer. Once the alarm goes out, he said, Sycamore is able to call in more help or staff, but it takes time to amass those folks, get to the station, get the rig and go en route.

“That process could take 15 minutes or longer, depending on where the call is,” Polarek said.

Polarek said there is a resource sharing network for Illinois, southern Wisconsin, eastern Iowa and western Indiana that’s now a lot more seamless of a process to request mutual aid.

“It [more local mutual aid] certainly works for small fire or medium to large fire,” Polarek said. “But if it gets way beyond that and if there’s a tornado, for example, and you need a lot of ambulances … that doesn’t mean we couldn’t get five ambulances from Chicago or metropolitan areas with just one call.”

More ambulance calls

McMaster said ambulance calls are rising sharply for the department. He said those calls have increased by almost 25% each year in the past three years – meaning the department’s ambulances are out on the road a lot more and, if they’re out on an ambulance call or they’re at a hospital and a fire call comes in, they’re not responding out of the station.

With 13 on duty and two ambulances on call – which is regularly the case, McMaster said – available staffing is often brought down to nine firefighters able to respond to a scene.

“So that’s where we could start to see difficulties of meeting the standards,” McMaster said.

About a year ago, McMaster called the rise in 911 calls for service “an epidemic,” in DeKalb County. Now, a real pandemic threatens to tighten pressure on already burdened staff.

McMaster said there was a sharp decline in requests for 911 service this March, April and May because of the COVID-19 pandemic, since people were afraid to go to the hospital out of fears of being exposed to the new virus. But since June until present day, he said, EMS calls are sharply increasing again since people seem less leery of calling for help.

“They know the precautions, they know how to keep themselves safe and hospitals are better prepared to handle the virus,“ McMaster said.

McMaster said he anticipates calls in 2020 to exceed last year’s. He said there were 6,668 total calls in 2019, with 77% of those being EMS calls, and there are 5,900 total calls so far this year.

Polarek said he has seen a similar trend of EMS calls plummeting at the beginning of the pandemic and those numbers creeping up again in the past few months. Generally speaking, he said, Sycamore’s department also has seen total calls for service steadily increasing year to year.

PPE and budgets

McMaster said one of the biggest challenges for the fire department lately is the expense of personal protective equipment and availability of that equipment. He said the department maintains ample stock, but an N95 mask that previously cost $25 for a pack of 20 now costs $7 per mask.

That has deep impacts on the budget – with doubled spending for EMS staff – but hasn’t affected hiring, since those are two separate pots of money, McMaster said.

“The fire department is paying exorbitant amounts of dollars for protective equipment, which we’re going to do, and that goes for disinfectant … but that’s all supply and demand,” McMaster said.

Polarek said COVID-19 has brought its own day-to-day challenges. He said if a firefighter is subject to high risk exposure of COVID-19, he doesn’t want them coming into work and potentially exposing the rest of the crew. That means one less firefighter the department has to help answer calls for service, however.

He said the department takes advantage of mutual aid daily and that it’s been helpful.

“Every day, someone is helping their neighbor in the county,” Polarek said.

McMaster said reduced revenue coming in for fire safety budgets hasn’t helped the situation, either.

“But I can definitely assure you that at the fire department, we have all firefighters that have worked to make sure people in the city of DeKalb have not missed a beat,” McMaster said.

McMaster said the department is working on meeting those continuing challenges in the future and will look at more staffing and recruiting. For the time being, he said, the department will continue to do what they can to try to meet those standards the best that they can, and staff remain committed to serving the community and ensuring firefighter safety.

McMaster said he’s proud of the fire department and what they have done.

They come to work ready to serve the public.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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