McHenry County fire agencies adjust as firefighting field changes

Chief Tony Huemann of the McHenry Township Fire Protection District was the kid who grew up dreaming about jumping at the sound of a bell to confront a blazing building.

While his long firefighting tenure has allowed him plenty of opportunities to fulfill that dream, time, fire safety advancements and an expanding demand for medical care have made those instances far less frequent. It seems the duties associated with being a firefighter reflect the job title less as the years go on, with the number of fire calls falling as emergency medical services continue to grow in demand.

“It’s turned into us doing much more patient care and ambulance work than we ever have in the past,” Huemann said. “And then we’ll go on a fire call occasionally.”

Local and national
agencies report trend

Within the jurisdiction of the Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Fire Protection District, EMS responses continue to outweigh fire responses, as they have since at least 2001, according to data from the district. Then, medical calls represented 53 percent of the total responses, whereas they made up 68 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, fire responses declined from 47 percent of the total to 32 percent in that time.

The trend also is evident in Crystal Lake, where the fire and rescue department, which integrated fire and EMS services in 1980, reported almost two times the number of EMS calls last year compared to the year 2000, and only 56 fire calls in 2014 compared to 169 in 2003.

The local data mirror those of agencies nationwide,
according to the National Fire Protection Association. Figures from an association survey indicate a 58.5 percent decrease in fire calls from 1980 to 2013. On the medical aid side, calls shot up 323 percent in that same time frame.

Explaining the trends

“In terms of the decrease in fire calls, as a country we are becoming much more fire safe,” said Kenneth Willette, manager of the association’s public fire protection division. “We now have early warning, requiring the installation of smoke detectors and in some states, residential sprinkler systems.

“We see the impact of modern fire codes in commercial and industrial buildings, requiring better fire detention and suppression systems – all of these things have made the country more fire safe.”

He added that there are many reasons why firefighters more often respond to medical emergencies these days, noting the higher prevalence of certain health issues such as obesity and diabetes.

And as the Bureau of Labor Statistics points out, the aging population is expected to be a factor in firefighter employment growth. The bureau has projected the role to grow 7 percent from 2012 to 2022 as elderly people typically use more emergency medical services.

Effects of the
shift in services

Locally, officials confirmed higher personnel numbers and ongoing recruiting, but couldn’t absolutely distinguish whether that has been because of the demand for medical services or general population growth.

However, Woodstock Fire Chief Ralph Webster did say officials there have been mulling the possibility of reallocating some of the existing personnel to address the shift.

“We’re currently having discussions about putting additional resources toward handling the emergency medical calls and siphoning off resources dedicated to fire apparatus,” Webster said. “The primary reason we’re looking at that is because our job has changed.

“If our job changed from responding to and putting out fires to addressing emergency medical [situations], then we want to look at how we can best address that change.”

In the McHenry area, Huemann said any aspiring firefighters need to already be paramedics at the time of application, and typically will have a more formal education than what was once required.

He also said today’s firefighters face more frequent training to maintain the skills being used less and less.

“We have to spend more time training for fire calls because we’re not getting the experience we used to get,” he said. “I would say we’re asking personnel to perform some sort of training every day, and it did not used to be like that.”