Fewer calls give Salem firefighters more training time

SALEM – City firefighters handled fewer incidents last year, with decreases in the number of structure fires and fires overall, along with drops in severe weather complaints, hazardous material conditions and extrications.

At the same time, training hours increased quite a bit, from 945 hours in 2012 to 1,439 hours in 2013.

Salem Fire Chief Jeff Hughes said those hours are expected to increase again this year with a new platform ladder truck on the way.

“It’s going to change how we operate some,” Hughes said.

The new truck will feature a 102-foot ladder with a platform at the end, increasing the safety for firefighters and for anyone who has to be rescued from the upper floors of a structure like an apartment building.

As with any new piece of equipment, there will be lots of training involved to get firefighters familiarized with the controls and the many safety features on the truck. Hughes said they’ll have a different strategy for fire attacks. The department currently has a 75-foot ladder truck, but the reach depends on the angle and how close the truck can get to a building.

Hughes explained that the length of the ladder makes a difference on reach on buildings like the Smith Center, the senior apartment complex on Fourth Street, and an industrial plant like American Standard. Hughes said the rescue at the apartment building fire on West Perry Street in Perry Township last November would have been smoother with the platform truck. All three victims rescued from the back of the building could have come down at the same time on the platform bucket instead of being brought down individually on the stick-style ladder.

Salem provided mutual aid for that fire and was first on the scene, using the current ladder truck to rescue residents from the back of the building and a ladder put up against the front of the building to rescue more residents.

According to the 2013 activity report, the department handled 1,547 incidents, which was a slight decrease from the 1,615 incidents recorded in 2012. More than half were first responder/EMS calls, which increased from 851 in 2012 to 892 in 2013. With the first responder program, firefighters do not transport, but they do run to emergencies when an ambulance is called. They all have training which allows them to provide basic life-saving measures.

Hughes was glad to see the number of structure fires had decreased from 30 in 2012 to 15 last year – that’s less people out of their homes. The overall number of fires, which includes the structure fires, decreased from 75 to 59. Extrications dropped from 19 to 15, severe weather complaints dropped dramatically from 21 to 1 and hazardous material calls dropped from 146 down to 90.

“It’s an unpredictable situation that we deal with,” he said, especially with the weather and structure fires.

With more construction, there could be more accidents. Trucks are always traveling through the city and then there’s the trains, too. Hughes said the potential is always there. Last year, firefighters had to respond for standby at five meth lab incidents, which are treated as hazardous material calls. Most of the firefighters are all trained as hazardous material technicians, but Hughes said part of the training he’s expecting this year will deal specifically with meth labs, in conjunction with the police department.

He explained that part of the reason training hours increased last year was because each firefighter had recertification for EMT. Each shift also did some individual training. With a new firefighter on the job, there will be some training there, too. Hughes said the two most recent hires will be trained as hazardous material technicians. He also wants to see all the officers designated as state-certified fire inspectors. Several in the department already have the certification.

A veteran firefighter with 24 years experience, Hughes’ brother Rod left for retirement last month, but when it comes to the firefighters in the department, Hughes said “their experience is pretty impressive.”

He said they’re motivated and go out and get some training on their own. The majority have come from volunteer departments where they already had some experience before they came to Salem. They already have knowledge when they start.

“They show a lot of dedication,” he said.

The activity report showed a decrease in the dollar amount for grants collected from $174,177 in 2012 to $108,598 in 2013. Hughes said he’s applying for grants, but he’s not expecting another decrease this year. The SAFER grant which was used to bring two firefighters back after a layoff was finished last year. He’s applying for an equipment grant from the State Fire Marshal’s office, but last year the city was turned down for the same grant.

Service calls, which can include calls for removing bats from homes or pumping out a flooded basement, decreased from 302 down to 268. False alarms and good intent calls, which could include a call cancelled while en route or a legal cookout called in as an illegal fire, both increased. Good intent calls went from 86 to 98 and false alarms increased from 115 to 124.

The department did more inspections, 516 up from 420, and issued more demolition permits, eight instead of six the previous year. The average response time changed from 3.62 minutes to 3.88 minutes and fewer classes and tours visited the station. The numbers decreased from 32 tours to 28 tours, with the number of people reduced from 1,952 to 1,180.