Fire Department sees increase in calls

The Observer contacted Oregon fire departments of similar size to see what their call volumes and staff numbers are to get a better picture of what departments are dealing with. Below is the total amount of calls divided by the amount of full-time staff who would respond.

In 2017, the La Grande Fire Department responded to a total of 3,241 calls for service. With 15 full-time firefighter and medical personnel, that’s 216 calls for service per person.

The Umatilla County Fire District No. 1 department responded to a total of 4,351 calls for service with 27 full-time positions. That’s a total of 161 calls for service per person.

The Ontario Fire Department, which is not a transport ambulance service, responded to 2,468 calls for service. It has eight full-time staff members, which divides out to 308 calls each. Fire departments in Baker County and The Dalles could not provide the numbers by deadline.

LA GRANDE — The La Grande Fire Department saw an 18 percent increase in calls last year, falling just short of 500 more calls than what it received in 2016. The department is stretched thin, forced to do more with less.

By the numbers

In 2016, the fire department responded to 2,743 service calls. Last year, it ended with a total of 3,241. There’s really no saying why there was an increase in calls, but this is a continuing trend.

In 2001, the last year before the fire department took on ambulance calls, the call volume totaled 867. By 2002, with the added calls for medical, it ended the year with 1,803. Just over 16 years later, the fire department has seen an 80 percent increase in calls.

LGFD Captain Robert Tibbetts said he doesn’t have an explanation as to why the fire department is seeing more calls — especially over the last year.

“Even with last year’s bad winter, there wasn’t a noticeable increase in slip falls or crashes on the freeway,” Tibbetts said. “Winter only lasts for a quarter of the year. And we can’t attribute (an increase) to the eclipse. I guess we’re just left with a general increase.”

Tibbetts said he has a theory, without any basis of fact, that points to the medical clinic being strapped for doctors. To his recollection, many of the patients the fire department has taken to the hospital were complaining of general ailments — back hurts, feels crummy, flu-like symptoms — rather than facing a life or death situation.

In 2002, the department began taking ambulance calls and increased the number of people they had on the crew, Tibbetts said. In 2017, they received more than 1,400 calls than that first year — and that’s even after they got a slight drop after LifeFlight, an air ambulance service, put in a helipad.

About five years ago, Grande Ronde Hospital built a helistop for LifeFlight helicopters. Before that, they utilized the field behind the former Central Elementary School.

“LifeFlight was here, but they didn’t have a helistop. (The fire department) would get dispatched to do a LifeFlight transfer, and we’d pick up the crew at the hospital and bring them down to the (field) and they’d take off from there,” Tibbetts said.

After the helipad was built, the fire department was no longer needed and it saw a 200-call decrease for service.

“We knew there was going to be a drop,” he said. “We got a bit of a breather that year.”

However, it was a short respite.

Equipment failures

With more calls comes more miles on their fleet.

Recently, one of the main ambulances the department uses was en route to the hospital with a patient when the engine seized. The other ambulance crew was dispatched to get the patient and take him to the hospital.

“It’s the first catastrophic failure we’ve had in a while,” Tibbetts said.

It will cost approximately $15,000 to bring the ambulance back in service.

The fire department is using their 1996 backup ambulance while they wait for the engine to come back from Texas, where it was sent for repairs.

“The reason we kept (the old ambulance) is because we know we have an aging fleet,” Tibbetts said. “It’s an older, very cramped ambulance.”

According to La Grande City Manager Robert Strope, replacing a fire department’s ambulance or engine is astronomically more expensive than replacing a police vehicle.

Strope said one of the things the departments do is set aside funds to go toward replacing their vehicles. The department allocates money, theoretically every year, to go toward the purchase of an $180,000 ambulance.

“We may not be able to fund that in a single budget year,” Strope said. “Ideally, what I’d like to see is us being in a financial situation where we can adequately set aside and replace those machines in a timely manner, but we can’t always do that.”

While an ambulance may cost nearly $200,000, its fire equipment can be anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million or more depending on what the department’s needs are.

“The stuff is expensive,” Strope said. “Sometimes we do a rebox on an ambulance — where we take the box in the back and stick it on a new frame.”

There are positives and negatives to going that route, he said.

“Sometimes when you do the rebox it isn’t an ideal situation. Those boxes get wear and tear on them as well. You can end up with some additional costs you weren’t anticipating,” Strope said.

Tibbetts said an ambulance wears out much more quickly than a private vehicle.

In a perfect world, the department could replace an ambulance every five years.

“Our newest ambulance is a 2016 and has about 40,000 miles on it,” he said. “The one that lost an engine was 2011 with 135,000 miles. Our 2004 (ambulance has) 202,000 miles on it.”

He said the department struggles with the cost of replacing the vehicles. They can’t afford new equipment, but their existing equipment sometimes fails.

“That is concerning,” Tibbetts said. “That’s how we get people to and from the hospital.”

The ambulances see some hard miles.

“The kind of driving we do — stop and go, fast and slow — we put a lot of demands on them,” Tibbetts said. “When I was told about the ambulance failing, it didn’t put me in shock.”

It’s not just the ambulance that needs to be replaced, either.

“We’re due for a new fire engine,” Tibbetts said. “Our newest of the engines is 2005. The next newest is a 1984 and the one before that is a vintage 1960s.”

A fire engine, a vehicle that has the capability of delivering water, is the hardest thing to come by.

“We could put $10,000 aside for 50 years, because that’s how long it will take to save up for that,” Tibbetts said.

There are grants available for fire engines, which the department does pursue and has been granted before, he said. The ambulance generates revenue so there aren’t grants available to help the department in that regard.


The fire department has 15 full-time firefighters/medical personnel on staff. There has not been an increase in staff to match the increase in calls.

“Staffing is difficult to triage because we’ve managed,” Tibbetts said. “To walk into the budget hearing and say ‘We can’t do what we do without more people’ is difficult because the question is: ‘What have you not been doing? How have you made it this long?’”

He said he knows the police department has backed off on some calls due to insufficient staffing.

“When I worked at the police station, we’d respond to bicycle theft complaints,” Tibbetts said. “Now, they’re having to fill out a report. I supposed we’ll end up there if we continue this trend.”

He noted that beyond service calls, the department gives fire station tours, teaches fire extinguisher classes and performs fire inspections for the community. He said those are the services that unfortunately are the first to go when the workload gets to be too much.

“We put on presentations at school for fire safety. We also have a car seat safety program and smoke alarm checks,” Tibbetts added.

The department also participates in community events like Celebrate La Grande and the city’s parades.

With the steady increase in calls but no extra staff, the department someday may not have time for community events.

Strope said the city has budgeted an overtime line item for the department when they need more people to come in.

“Yes, they’re up (in call numbers),” Strope said. “When we look at calls for service, the raw number is going to fluctuate from year to year.

“It’s not just the fire department (that is suffering). We are seeing more of a demand for service across the board. We do the best we can with the resources we have.”

The temporary solution for the need for more staff is using the off-duty personnel.

Strope said the crew on shift can ask for off-duty personnel to come in for standby or for pending calls.

“We’re always concerned about response time and we make sure we have the resources that are needed,” he said.