Volunteer firefighter Bill Luthy, left, runs through the Functional Ability Test, or F.A.T., on Monday afternoon. The drill is an annual requirement in which firefighters must complete tasks in under seven minutes, preparing them for the types of situations they could face while on an emergency call./Photo by Jennaye Derg

The Sounds of Sirens

Durango fire and rescue seeing uptick in emergency calls

by Tracy Chamberlin

The wailing sirens and warning lights that accompany a fire truck as it pulls out of Station 2 and onto Camino del Rio are, in fact, becoming more common.

It’s not just because summer is the season for higher call volume. The numbers show that Durango’s first responders, year after year, are answering more calls for help.

“In 2014, Durango Fire Rescue to date has run 2,990 calls – compared to 2,706 to this date last year,” explained Hal Doughty, deputy chief of operations for Durango Fire and Rescue. “This puts us on par to see equal or greater call volume increases to the 8 percent trend over the last three years.”

In 2011, Doughty said they received 3,691 calls. That number increased to 3,985 in 2012 and, again, went up in 2013 to 4,265.

There’s a combination of causes behind the uptick, but Doughty said it’s likely there are simply more people using the system.

For one thing, there are more people today in the Durango Fire and Rescue district than there were in 2011 – more residents and more tourists.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the State Demography Office, the population of La Plata County has been going up since 2011 by an average of 1 to 2 percent each year; and, it’s forecasted to keep growing well into the future.

Representatives from the Durango Area Tourism Office said the best way to gauge whether visitor numbers are up is to look at the city’s sales and lodger’s taxes, which have also been on the rise every year since 2011.

Other possible reasons Doughty offered for increased call volume were that residents are more comfortable calling 9-1-1 because they know the Durango Fire and Rescue crews are there for them.

Additionally, more people likely have access to health insurance today than in the past. The number of EMS, or Emergency Medical Services, calls have also steadily gone up with 2,713 in 2011, 2,810 in 2012 and 3,089 in 2013.

It’s also a different world altogether. With cell phones in every pocket and purse across town, it’s much easier to call for help. That wasn’t always the case.

Durango Fire and Rescue has 16 stations with 180 members covering 325 square miles in La Plata County. They take care of all the emergency services, from trash fires to trauma situations, in a district running the entire Highway 550 corridor – Coal Bank Pass through downtown Durango, and all the way to Bondad. Station 2, just off of Camino Del Rio, is the busiest with about 1,378 emergency calls fielded so far this year. ./Photo by Jennaye Derge

For example, when a car ran off the road, bystanders would pull over and ask “Is everyone alright?” Then they would make the decision whether or not to find a payphone and call 9-1-1. These days, those same bystanders might just keep driving and call 9-1-1 from their cell phones.

Doughty said people often have good intentions, but those calls can be unreliable. They’re termed “drive-by 9-1-1 calls.”

Another example would be a person who sees smoke in the distance.

The intention could be to report a possible fire during a dry summer season, but maybe they’re uncertain where it might be coming from or exactly what street they are calling from. “It’s hard to provide help to where you thought you were,” Doughty explained.

No matter the call or caller, if anyone is sick, injured or needs to be rescued, he said they answer the call. “People don’t realize just how big an organization we are.”

Durango Fire and Rescue has 16 stations with 180 members covering 325 square miles in La Plata County. They take care of all the emergency services, from trash fires to trauma situations, in a district running the entire Highway 550 corridor – Coal Bank Pass through downtown Durango, and all the way to Bondad.

Each time they respond to a 9-1-1 call, crews weigh the danger of driving with the sirens blaring and lights flashing against the possibility of being able to truly save a life.

Although crews drive cautiously and defensively, Doughty said, it’s still a risk to weave their way through traffic and ask the public to give them the right-of-way. “In our line of work there’s a really delicate balance.”

Crews are always contemplating that critical call, and Doughty said he’s asking them to take an even harder look at that measured, decision-making process in an attempt to fine tune the system. The result of those calls could be the life or death difference.

On the medical side, the types of calls that would typically garner the lights and sirens are things like cardiac events, with chest pains and shortness of breath, someone actively having a seizure or 4 a critical trauma call, including gunshots or stabbings.

On the fire side, anything that might be a working fire, whether it’s a dumpster or wildland fire, would be cause for sounding the alarms.

One of the numbers that fluctuates the most is the number of fires, which went from 327 in 2011 to 227 in 2012, and back up to 302 in 2013. Included in those numbers are all things burning: structure fires, brush, forest, dumpster fires, and even trash cans set ablaze.

What makes the total vary so dramatically from year to year, Doughty said, is wildland fires, which are also more likely to have an effect during dry seasons or when burn bans and fire restrictions are in place.

For those years when bans or restrictions are established, the fire calls tend to be lower, according to Doughty. “That lets you know it was the right thing to do.”

In 2011, La Plata County experienced 42 days of fire restrictions and fielded 327 fire calls.

The following year, when the Weber fire burned near Mancos, the county not only had 58 days of fire restrictions, but Durango and Silverton cancelled their Fourth of July fireworks shows.

That year the number of fire calls dropped dramatically to 227.

In 2013, the county had fire restrictions in place, again, for 42 days. But as the West Fork Fire north of Wolf Creek Pass scorched the Weminuche Wilderness and Rio Grande National Forest, the fire and rescue authorities took 302 fire calls.

Although some elements of the fire equation can be explained, the overall causes for increased call volumes is anyone’s guess.

“I think when it comes to why, you end up with a lot of hypothesis,” Doughty said.

One thing he won’t hypothesize about is having the personnel and equipment to take care of the all the calls the department receives.

Durango Fire and Rescue recently secured grant monies to assist with the purchase of a new ambulance. In the past they were able to utilize the same state EMS grants, which pay 50 percent, to acquire two new ambulances last year and one the year before, bringing the total to four new ambulances.

Next on the capital improvements roster is fire trucks and station upgrades. It’s been almost five years since the department added any new fire trucks to its fighting arsenal; and, right now, they are studying their future options.

It’s really important, Doughty said, that they do a good job keeping up with staffing and equipment. Especially when preparing to deal with the increased call volume, this year and in years to come.


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