ELLY GRIMM • Leader & Times
Emergency personnel were kept busier than ever throughout the U.S. in 2020, not only with the COVID-19 pandemic raging, but also with other calls, including fire incidents.
“Throughout the past 10 years (2011-2020), there were an average of 62,693 wildfires annually and an average of 7.5 million acres impacted annually,” a report from the Federation of American Scientists noted. “In 2020, more than 58,250 wildfires burned 10.3 million acres, the most acreage impacted in a year. Nearly 40 percent of these acres were in California, and nearly half of the acres impacted were on NFS lands. Although wildfires may have a beneficial impact on ecological resources, wildfires also may have a devastating impact, especially for those communities affected by wildfire activity. Therefore, statistics showing the level of destruction a wildfire causes can be useful, such as acres burned, lives lost (firefighters and civilians), and structures (residential, commercial, and other) destroyed is important.”
That overall busyness was also seen by local emergency personnel. The Liberal Fire Department had several calls to respond to in 2020, and Liberal Deputy Fire Chief Skeety Poulton recounted some of those calls for the Liberal City Commission Tuesday evening.
“We ended the year with 1,454 calls, and in 2019, we’d had 1,601, so there was a little bit of a drop there,” Poulton said. “I attribute that to people not going out as much due to COVID-19, so that led to fewer injuries and things like that. That still averages out to about four calls per day and in 2019, it was an average of about 4.5 calls per day. For 2020, we had about 121 calls per month, so we’re staying pretty busy. We did have a $1.7 million loss, and the thing to keep in mind with that is $1 million of that was the paintstriper that caught fire at the Toot N’ Totum station. We did go up slightly on civilian casualties, which is anyone injured from a fire, and we had three from the year prior.”
Poulton added some training had gone down.
“Our training and public education went way down, and that’s because Cody [Regier] couldn’t get into the schools to do the fire safety stuff, and we also stopped giving station tours because we didn’t want that type of contact with anyone during COVID-19,” Poulton said. “With training, we kept the firefighters at their individual stations and that was really rough on the guys since they couldn’t come together and work as a team on that stuff. But with some of the COVID-19 funds, we were able to get an action training system for our computers so the firefighters can now finish that stuff from their homes or the station and work toward the different certifications and things like that. We’ve only recently started letting them come back together to do the team training stuff and everything’s finally starting to come back around. We did around 800 or 900 inspections, which is us going into the buildings and looking around at those things. Something that really ramped up during COVID-19, since there wasn’t much else we could do, was inspection of the hydrants around town, we looked at a lot of them around town.”
Poulton then answered some questions from the commission.
“To my knowledge, we haven’t responded to anything in Oklahoma since about 2005 – we’re still mutual aid for them and we’ll go and help if they really need it, but we don’t automatically go there on calls,” Poulton said. “We’re also still down three firefighters and we’re not having a lot of luck there. What we’d really like is for some extra training, the big thing is the EMT training, it takes about six months for someone to go through the EMT class, and that’s every third day for four hours, and that’s just the classroom component. It’s quite a commitment and once we get people here, we’d like to keep them here, but unfortunately, there are bigger and higher-paying departments that attract them, so off they go. Hopefully we can get some more people hired this year, but money does talk – I can think of a few guys who ended up going to the north or northeast part of the state.”
“What can we do to actually get some people to come here?” Liberal Vice Mayor Tony Martinez asked.
“I’ve been working on recruitment for a number of years now, and I’ll say right now, there’s not one single magic answer, especially due to where we’re located and things like that,” Liberal Fire Chief Kelly Kirk said. “We’ve been fortunate to attract a couple guys in the past few years who look like they’re going to stay for a while, and they’re making their way through the ranks. And something else that recently happened is we got our ISO review, which happens every five years, and we didn’t lose anything, which is what we’d prefer – I’d rather stay at a steady good level than go up/down every time. And aside from getting some more apparatuses set up and hiring half a dozen more firefighters out at the airport, that rating probably won’t increase.”