Fire chief: Understaffed fire dept. struggling with medical calls

Bloomington Fire Chief Brian Mohr said that although response times have improved, the increase in medical calls is taxing on the department

By Maria Nagle
The Pantagraph

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Changes in the past two years have improved Bloomington Fire Department's response times, but Fire Chief Brian Mohr said the changes also have increased the use of other vehicles and crews on medical runs that is taxing the understaffed department.

"Our benchmark is the six-minute response time. Our goal is to be doing that at 90 percent of the time," said Mohr. 

BFD is reaching the six-minute benchmark about 75 percent of the time, he said. The department's response time was within 6 minutes 66.5 percent of the time in 2016.

A change made in December 2016 has resulted in dispatchers now calling for the closest fire truck to respond to an emergency medical call when no ambulance is available in one of the city's five fire districts. 

"Because of deployment change, we do have significantly more runs than what we had previously," Mohr told the City Council Monday night. "So it's improved the response times, but the negative side of that is we're having to put more units out on the streets to handle those calls."

BFD's number of runs has increased by 3,496, to 20,622 over the two-year period since December 2015. 

Because of a shortage of 11 firefighters, the department has been seeing increased overtime labor costs, added Mohr.

"I had an individual with over 80 hours of overtime just two weeks ago in a time period," said Mohr."That's not good obviously for morale, and I can't keep that up."

The department hired seven firefighters in November, but they will not complete their training until March. Meanwhile, several more firefighters are expected to retire after the first of the year.

"We are at a critical level," said Mohr. "We just have to get the (new hires) counting toward manpower, and then we're going to be sustainable. There's just too much overtime at this point in time."

To improve emergency medical response times, the council a year ago approved a $545,000 tax levy increase to fund a second ambulance crew at the headquarters fire station at 310 N. Lee St.

The headquarters station handled 46 percent of the department's calls for the entire community in 2016.

"The next step we need to do is I need to staff that second ambulance," said Mohr. "In order to do that I need to hire an additional six firefighters."

Mohr anticipates the addition of a second medical unit at the headquarters district to improve response times throughout the community, including to the city's northeast sector.

When the crews and vehicles based at the headquarters station are busy, resources from other outlying stations are brought in to handle other calls, which adds to the response times, said Mohr.

Copyright 2017 The Pantagraph

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