Dalton Fire Department has fewer calls during pandemic

File photo

Dalton firefighters assist at the site of an apartment fire in December 2017. During the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the department has seen a decrease in the number of calls and responses. 

The Dalton Fire Department has experienced a decrease in the number of calls and responses during the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The fire department responded to 181 calls for services in April, with an average response time of 3:25, Todd Pangle, Dalton's fire chief, explained during Tuesday's meeting of the Dalton Public Safety Commission. The average response time for non-emergency calls was 31 seconds longer, 3:56.

In April, half of the incidents for the fire department were medical in nature, but that totaled only 83 incidents, down from 219 in April 2019, a "drastic decrease," Pangle said. In 50 of those incidents, or 60%, the fire department was on the scene before Hamilton Emergency Medical Services.

There was only one building fire for the department to respond to in April, "very minor in nature," at an apartment complex, he said. Due to fast response, "we kept it to one small room," limiting the damage to $5,400, and that fire remains under investigation.

Fire department employees began receiving hazard pay, a $2 per hour raise, in early April, because they can be exposed to COVID-19 in the course of their duties, but the department is saving money in other areas to balance the budget, such as limiting travel for training, Pangle said. "We have been trying to be as conservative as possible due to the unknown future."

"I think the hazard pay is well deserved," said Commissioner Luis Viamonte. These employees expose not only themselves, but also their families, to the coronavirus as part of their jobs, which is "a very tough situation."

And they often perform critical medical functions, from administering CPR to providing Narcan, which can treat narcotic overdoses, Viamonte said. Even with his years in medicine as a doctor, Viamonte wasn't aware until recently the amount of medical aid these individuals provide.

In fact, he hopes to join police officers and firefighters for a shift soon to see how they work daily, he said. "Our wish is they have the training and equipment to feel safe" in their jobs.

Bill Weaver, commission chairman, echoed those sentiments, noting that "we certainly do appreciate what they do on a day-to-day basis."

Due to the pandemic, the fire department, which has recorded zero positive tests for COVID-19 among employees, began modifying response protocols in mid-March, Pangle said. For example, firefighters are "not entering residences unless we have to," instead allowing individuals to "come to us" outside.

The fire department also ceased pre-incident visits, where firefighters travel to businesses before ever summoned for an emergency to gather reconnaissance that could be pivotal in the event of a fire, he said. He also stopped inviting individuals into the fire department for public relations and sending firefighters out to interact with the public.

And, while outside training is all but eliminated due to the pandemic, internal training picked up dramatically, he said. The department still logged 2,300 hours of training in April.

Calls decreased in March for the fire department, but that was the case for many agencies, Pangle said. For example, calls for Hamilton Emergency Services were down 50% that month.

"The only thing that stood out in our financial department" for March was a $48,000 expenditure to replace a "blown motor in a rescue truck," he said. It would have cost roughly $1.3 million to replace the entire vehicle, so while the motor was "quite a large expenditure, (it was) necessary."

"February for us was pretty much normal," although the fire department did begin seeing a modest reduction in training due to social distancing because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pangle said. "There was nothing out of the norm."

February's financial report contained no unexpected expenditures, he said. "Everything (was) good."

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