When the alarm bell sounds at a Boise fire station, its usually not a fire.
Just 3 percent 584 of the 18,806 calls firefighters responded to in 2011 involved something that was actually on fire, according to department data. That includes calls for the Whitney and North Ada County fire districts, which consolidated operations with Boise in 2000 and 2010, respectively.
In fact, fire-related calls in Boise have been dropping for the past decade about 34 percent since 2001. All other emergency calls were up 23 percent in 2009 and 43 percent in 2011 (after the merger with North Ada) compared with 2001.
Fire prevention education, fire-resistant building materials and better building codes have contributed to the reduction in fire calls.
If its not fire, what gets firefighters out of the station almost 19,000 times in 2011?
Medical emergencies and rescues of all kinds car crashes, fall victims, heart attacks, near-drownings and injured bicyclists in the Foothills. Factors contributing to the increase include population growth, the increase in number of elderly baby boomers and longer lives in general and the poor economy forcing more uninsured and under-insured people to put off care until they have health crises.
All of the 233 front-line Boise firefighters are certified as basic EMTs. Some have advanced training, and 25 are paramedics. Still, some residents are surprised to see fire trucks arrive for emergencies that dont involve a fire.
Even some firefighters say it can be confusing.
I honestly didnt understand the demands (before joining), said J.D. Ellis, a Boise fire battalion chief who has been with the department 24 years. He said the job is diverse whether its fire, EMS or the unpredictable calls firefighters get.
One time I had to rescue a lady from a racoon, he said. The racoon had come in through a pet door, tore through the house, and the woman was cowering in her bedroom.
READY FOR ANYTHING
So why send fire trucks if theres no fire?
Our position is to send the closest/best piece of equipment and personnel in the shortest time frame, Boise Fire Division Chief-Special Operations Paul Roberts said.
On any given day there are multiple emergencies that require a response. Often those requests come back to back, meaning a crew may go directly from one call to another. We do not know if that second call is going to be a fire or medical call, he said.
The department has been working the past year with Ada County Paramedics and other fire agencies Eagle, Kuna, Meridian and Star on a regional approach to emergency services. The goal is to deliver the best care and reduce duplication.
SPECIALTY TRAINING FOR RESCUES
Firefighters have always responded to a variety of emergency calls.
One thing about firefighters is they can figure anything out, Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan said. Theres nobody else coming.
Over the past three decades, urban fire departments like Boises have evolved into all-purpose rescue squads with special-operations teams.
The first team was aircraft rescue firefighting, established in 1965. Then came a dive team (1982), hazardous materials team (1991) and technical rescue team (2002).
The teams do extensive training. In 2011, dive team members spent an average of 53 hours training; airport rescue team members averaged 153 hours. The 35-member technical rescue team specializes in rope rescue, confined spaces, trenches, structure collapse and machinery entrapment. Its members had 125 hours of training last year.
One of the more dramatic rescues was in 2006, when a construction worker on a hotel project in BoDo dangled 11 stories above the ground in a safety harness when the metal basket he was standing on gave way.
In June 2011, firefighters used ropes and a basket to carry a 10-year-old boy to safety after he fell while hiking with a friend near Castle Rock in the East Boise Foothills. He recovered fully and even later paid the firefighters a visit at their station.
Things are looking good for him, said Battalion Chief Steve Rasulo, leader of the technical rescue team.
RECREATIONISTS IN TROUBLE
Regular calls from hikers and bicyclists in the Foothills are a relatively new phenomenon, Rasulo said. The fire department has ATVs, a motorcycle and a mountain bike to reach those victims.
There are places you cant get on a four-wheeler, Rasulo said.
The department has snowshoes but no snowmobiles. Snow machines are typically made available by private individuals, including volunteers with Idaho Mountain Search & Rescue.
Ellis, a liaison to the airport rescue team, said members train for crashes, collisions, fuel spills and medical calls at the terminal and on planes.
We go on standbys all the time an aircraft will come in, their hydraulics will be out, but they land safely, Ellis said.
One of the challenges for the 30-member airport team is being prepared for major crashes.
Its been an interesting process since 9/11 to figure out what we may be asked to do, he said. The tough thing is trying to make changes in the organization, given what might happen, but doing whats fiscally responsible.
Katy Moeller: 377-6413