Dixon Fire Chief: Staff shortage straining emergency response efforts

Ryan Buskohl asks City Council to pursue a federal SAFER grant for three more firefighters over 3 years

DIXON - Rising emergency call volumes and a strain to meet response standards are creating a critical need to increase staffing at the Dixon Fire Department, Chief Ryan Buskohl said Tuesday.

Buskohl approached the City Council about pursuing a FEMA Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER grant, which could pay for salaries and benefits for three more firefighters for 3 years and increase staff from 17 to 20 in the department.

Fire standards call for having an initial fire engine with four firefighters responding to a structure fire within 4 minutes, then a second engine with another four in 5 minutes, and having 15 to 17 responders on scene within 8 minutes, he said.

“We very rarely meet anywhere near that standard,” Buskohl said.

Being short staffed means that the first engine may only have two or three firefighters, and they’re responding with only around five or six personnel, he said.

“We’re getting very close to needing the additional staff to know that we’re covered,” he said.

After the 3 years of grant funding, Buskohl said the city would be able to continue to afford the staff using the emergency vehicle fund, which is used to purchase ambulances and fire engines.

Increasing staff has been a goal for at least 30 years, and there’s currently added strain with having staff out with longer term injuries or issues, he said. That has created more overtime costs and burnout for responders.

The department normally staffs five firefighters per shift for three shifts, and only one of those shifts is fully staffed. There’s also a dual response agreement with the Dixon Rural Fire Department where both departments respond to certain calls.

About 80% to 85% of the city’s emergency calls are ambulance related for emergency medical services, and they continue to increase. There were 2,201 calls in 2020 and 2,392 last year.

“The need is there for additional staffing, and this grant is our only opportunity to do it now,” Buskohl said.

Fire staffing has been an issue for many years and there have been efforts to look at ways to increase collaborations and efficiency, including an extensive fire study in 2008.

Buskohl said he has been researching different options for the last couple of years since becoming chief including part-time and volunteer staff, but there’s a nationwide shortage for volunteer firefighters.

Mayor Li Arellano Jr. said he would like a more detailed presentation including a breakdown of call volume, historical averages, impact from the COVID-19 pandemic, analysis of a possible float shift position and a financial dive into funding and how to afford additional staff.

He also spoke about possibly reaching out to consultants on a fire staffing study.

City Manager Danny Langloss said Buskohl is qualified to make an assessment of the department, and a consultant would likely tell them what they already know.

Councilwoman Mary Oros said they need to develop a plan of options in case they weren’t successful with the grant.

The council plans to discuss the staffing issues further in the future.

Rachel Rodgers

Rachel Rodgers

Rachel Rodgers joined Sauk Valley Media in 2016 covering local government in Dixon and Lee County.