The Fort Smith Fire Department, like most everyone else, was faced with a set of unique challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world in 2020. One of the most basic of those learning how to adapt and how to convince the public to get help from emergency services when needed.
FSFD adopted new policies on how to interact with customers and each other and modified training and daily routines, Fort Smith Fire Chief Phil Christensen said during his annual report to the Fort Smith Board of Directors Tuesday (May 25).
“In March 2020, the world as we knew it began to change. Zoom meetings, social distancing, virtual handshakes — this all became the norm,” Christensen said.
What also became the norm, at least for a period of time, was a reluctance on the part of the public to go to the hospital. Christensen said changing that mindset was one of the many challenges 2020 brought. FSFD saw a 16% decline overall in incidents in 2020, with much of that coming from a drop in emergency medical service (EMS) calls. Historically, the department sees a 2% to 3% increase in call volume year after year.
Incident summaries started off normally. In mid-February and into March, there was a slight decrease, Christensen said. By April, calls had declined drastically.
“It’s like someone turned the light switch off. Citizens were just not calling 9-1-1. There were reports of people being afraid to call 9-1-1, being afraid to go to the hospital,” he said.
After public service announcements from doctors telling people to not be afraid and to go to the hospital if there is a need, numbers started to increase again, Christensen said, noting that by late September and early October, the fire department had resumed normal operating calls. From January through March of 2021, FSFD has seen a 22% increase in call volume.
“COVID affected our overall run volume for 2020. It has a complete reverse effect for 2021,” Christensen said.
Recruiting was another challenge during the pandemic, he said. Typically, FSFD visits all area high schools and job fairs, speaks with college students and emergency medical technician (EMT) graduates. Efforts last year transferred to social media posts, flyers, and word-of-mouth. The department has 149 uniformed members and four civilian positions.
“Despite the recruiting challenges, the FSFD was fully staffed at year end, the first since my tenure as fire chief. In 2020, we hired (18) candidates. They have since passed all requirements and became our newest family members,” Christensen said.
Because the facility usually used to train new hires was closed because of COVID, FSFD held their first in-house fire training in 2020 with 12 new hires. Training was successful, Christensen said.
“It was successful enough that all 12 graduated with honors. We got a phone call from the dean of Arkansas Fire Academy wanting to know what we were doing in Fort Smith, Arkansas, that their scores were the highest of any class they have seen,” he said, noting the academy sent one of their adjunct instructors to Fort Smith to see what they were doing.
In 2020 there were 9,931 incidents. Of those, 5,791 were medical calls, 396 were vehicle accidents with injuries, 414 were vehicle accidents without injury, 113 were building fires, 64 were vehicle fires and 276 were public service calls. Of the incidents involving fires, the total value of the property involved was $144.0445 million, and the total loss for those fires was $3.327 million and the total amount of property saved during 2020 $140.718 million for a total combined loss of 2.36%, Christensen said. In 2019, fire loss was at 1.07%. Average response time to all calls was 3 minutes and 37 seconds, the same as in 2019, Christensen said.
“With that, our goals for 2021 are to remain healthy and strong, vigilant, trained, and ready to respond to emergencies to reduce loss of life and property,” Christensen said.