Whether it’s a grass fire on the edge of town, electrical lines arcing or assisting someone who has fallen, Philomath Fire & Rescue saw a record number of responses in 2022.
Local firefighters and emergency medical personnel responded to 975 service calls — a 13.8% increase over the previous year and a staggering 75.4% increase over the last 10 years.
“It’s a multifaceted problem, it really is,” Fire Chief Chancy Ferguson said. “It’s a growing population and it’s a stretched health-care system that is pulling resources and holding onto resources longer.”
Deputy Chief Rich Saalsaa said that with the onset of the pandemic, an emergency medical services dynamic has developed that indicates people are finding alternatives to crowded emergency rooms, expensive ambulance rides and overflowing medical-care facilities.
One of those alternatives is to dial 911 so the local fire department will be dispatched.
“We have these people that are on that sort of cusp of where they can’t take care of themselves very well but there’s really nowhere for them to go,” Saalsaa said. “And that’s not going to get any better soon.”
Many other types of services are stretched to the limit to severely impact resources that had been there in the past, Saalsaa added. Just recently, the system has been challenged with COVID, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and the traditional flu all hitting at once.
Philomath is also seeing a growth spurt with the construction of various subdivisions. Saalsaa said that in the breakdown of statistics, 19th Street is the dividing line. In 2022, the west side of 19th saw 28% of the calls and east of 19th saw 25%.
“Everything west of 19th Street, that call volume is pretty rock solid and it actually has been higher in past years,” Saalsaa said in reference to the 272 calls west of 19th. “That’s kinda been the bulk of our calls.”
The numbers on the east side have increased. That area had consistently been in the vicinity of 175 calls each year but in 2022, it spiked to 239.
The rise in calls comes at a time when Fire & Rescue has been struggling to find volunteers. But despite that situation, Saalsaa said the public should not be alarmed when it comes to responses. In fact, the department’s out-of-door response times are faster than ever and exceed the national average.
“Right now, with the staff that we have and the volunteers that we have, we’re able to manage even this call volume,” Saalsaa said. “But that’s it — we’re at the point where it’s not going to take much to kinda follow that over.”
Although those response times are exceptional, there can be issues.
“Where Benton County as a whole lacks is the second wave,” Ferguson said. “We can staff what we call first-alarm structure fire, so we get the first set of resources there really quickly. By the time that’s accomplished, the system is strained already. So there’s not a lot of fat, as far as extra calls or handling multiple calls.”
Philomath and neighboring agencies have agreements in place.
“If we have a structure fire we have Monroe, we have Corvallis, we have ourselves — that’s the first alarm,” Saalsaa said. “If we strike a second alarm, we’ll take Blodgett’s rescue and move them here so they can at least cover medical calls … we’ll move a Kings Valley engine this direction. But that’s all we can move — that’s half of their staffing gone.”
Ferguson said that with a nationwide health-care shortage, he sees the trend of high call volumes continuing. In particular, he mentioned the startling shortage of available mental health beds.
“It’s just the health-care system in general and EMS and emergency rooms take the brunt of that because that’s the end of line, right?” he said. “Between those two agencies, it really dramatically affects your call volume and the services that we’re providing.”
Ferguson said local calls will always have priority but the higher volume has impacted other duties around the station.
“We’re doing a great job of answering those calls but it’s making it hard to get all of the stuff in the background done,” Ferguson said. “That’s where we’re noticing that we’re starting to slip a little bit. We’re spending more time handling emergencies and all of the other stuff we’re trying to play catch-up on.”
Public education and fire and safety initiatives saw a decrease last year because of COVID restrictions. In 2022, Fire & Rescue taught CPR and first aid to 214 people, had seven participants in an emergency medical responder 10-week course, conducted 112 business inspections and completed 164 plan reviews and water supply evaluations for residences and businesses. It all added up to 384.5 staff hours of community involvement.
Breaking down the 2022 numbers, out of the 975 calls of service, 745 were medical and the other 230 fell under the label of fire calls. Those were up from 671 medical calls and 207 fire calls in 2021.
When it comes to the more rural calls, there were 65 to the Inavale area and 39 to the Wren area — the district has substations at both of those locations.
Aid to other departments, including conflagrations came in at 143, which was a 14% decrease from 2021. In a nutshell, much of that was due to Philomath sending fewer people to regional wildfires.