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June 25, 2022

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Emergency calls on the rise in Lower Columbia, as fire departments look to fund more staff, equipment

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LONGVIEW — Four local fire departments say 911 calls are up and three are asking for resources to keep up with emergencies.

Overall, Cowlitz County saw 1,500 more emergency calls in 2021, compared to the year before, said Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue Deputy Chief of Operations Jason Sanders.

Cowlitz 2 reports a roughly 12% increase and Longview Fire Department reports a 13.5% increase in emergency calls from 2020 to 2021. Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue reports a roughly 18% increase in emergency responses during the same time period.

Toutle Fire & Rescue Chief Dustin Nunes said the primarily volunteer department received 150 more calls in 2021 than in 2020, and is on track this year to reach 600 calls. The department’s website says the district typically “responds to more than 300 emergency calls” a year.

“Everybody in the county, every district is up,” Nunes said.

Longview, Toutle and Clark-Cowlitz are looking to fund more resources.

Rates increasing

Fire crews attributed the call increase to rising populations, aging citizens and COVID-19.

Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue covers the city of Kelso and unincorporated areas surrounding Longview. The agency’s emergency calls have increased over the last four years, but not as quickly as recent accounts. Calls increased 0.7% from 2018 to 2019 and 3% increase from 2019 to 2020, compared to about 12% from 2020 to 2021, according to department reports.

Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue, which covers the cities of Woodland, LaCenter and Ridgefield and unincorporated Clark County, reports department responses to emergency calls have increased 57% since 2016.

Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue Chief John Nohr said department crews are taking longer to reach people in need due to the increased emergency calls, as well as delays from its contracted private ambulance company. The department says, overall, the time to respond to high-priority emergencies has increased 11% since 2019.

Medical calls

Longview, Cowlitz 2 and Clark-Cowlitz say they receive more calls for medical services than fires. When people call 911, medics and ambulances are often deployed from a local fire department.

Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue reports more than half of the district’s responses in April were for Emergency Medical Services.

Cowlitz 2 reports about 62% of calls in 2021 were for EMS, while fire accounted for about 5.5% of calls. The most people who called for medical assistance in 2021 experienced a traumatic injury, like a car accident, or were sick or in pain.

Longview Fire Department reports 82% of emergency calls in 2021 were for EMS or rescues, while fires accounted for about 3% of calls. In 2020, EMS accounted for 79% of calls and fires accounted for about 4%, the department reports.

Longview Battalion Chief Eric Koreis said the district saw a slight decrease in emergency calls in 2020, which he believed was caused by people traveling less during pandemic lockdowns. When the Delta COVID-19 variant hit around spring 2021, emergency calls spiked, he added.

Koreis said the department refers frequent 911 callers to social service centers like the Area Agency on Aging & Disabilities of Southwest Washington to help solve repeated problems, like a person falling.

“There’s nothing we can do to affect demand, so we tend to focus on areas we can control, like dispatch protocol,” Koreis said.

More resources

Toutle and Clark-Cowlitz crews are asking their district’s voters in August to approve tax levies to increase resources to reach emergencies sooner. Longview Fire crews also requested the city to budget for more staff and resources at Thursday’s Longview City Council workshop.

Sanders, of Cowlitz 2, said the department is not currently seeking funds for more resources because the emergency call rise isn’t critical.

Longview fire officials Thursday reviewed hiring three more firefighters and EMTs for a total of about $400,000 a year and buying one reserve ambulance for a one-time payment of $300,000. Funding could partially come from increasing ambulance transportation fees, which are lower than other local departments, according to the department’s meeting presentation.

Toutle fire crews are asking voters to pass a six-year levy lid lift in August to generate about $275,000 a year to hire fulltime firefighters and paramedics to regularly staff stations, which are primarily comprised of volunteers. The levy would be $0.61 per $1,000 of assessed property value, Chief Nunes said. He said hiring staff would ensure crews respond to calls faster and reduce fire insurance prices on district homes.

Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue is asking voters to pass an EMS levy in August to buy two new ambulances and hire 23 more employees to respond to calls as backup for its contracted ambulance company. The levy would cost $250 a year for the owner of a $500,000 home, and be between $0.45 to 0.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

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