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By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

Keizer Fire District had its busiest October ever last month.

District crews ran on 391 calls, an increase of 12 percent over the same month last year, and KFD officials expect to reach 4,000 calls by the end of the year. It will be the first time the district has run on that many calls in a single year. Overall, the district has run on 3,745 calls so far in 2014, a 6.6 percent increase over the same time frame in 2013.

While it might be cause for consternation, Chief Jeff Cowan said the upswing in demand is right in line with projections made a year ago.

“With modified staffing, we’ve been able to put the second ambulance into 24-hour service using volunteers and students putting in time toward their degrees,” Cowan said.

With a federal grant and a voter-approved levy, KFD has also been able to hire four additional firefighters that will further alleviate any strain.

“I see the demand growing, but we’ll be able to handle the increase,” Cowan said. “Everything is coming together the way we planned it and the the predictions we made have now borne out.”

Of the 391 calls in October, 300 were calls for medical assistance. Cowan expects those numbers to grow even more when Kaiser Permanente opens its Keizer Station location and additional senior care and senior living facilities, currently in planning or construction phases, crop up around town.

“If we have a senior being cared for, the medical issues can get complex really fast. When they’re on the fence, that’s when we get called,” Cowan said. “All of the care facilities work with us really well, but it’s important to have the plans in place. We go to Avamere almost every day and sometimes several times a day. When that happens with more and more facilities, we might start needing to look at the options for service agreements with those facilities.”

Cowan said recently receiving a “clean audit” of district financial dealings is added good news and might help in  crafting new service models to deal with ramped-up demand. The audit took into consideration “all activities regarding funding, expenses, purchasing, record keeping, accounting, and governmental controls, to provide for a clean record of business practices and the use of public funds.”

“We want to thank the community for supporting the levy last November because we’re staffing the second medic unit and hiring extra people now that the need has been validated,” Cowan said.

While KFD is ready to handle the demand from a personnel standpoint, its physical resources are another issue. An aging fleet of vehicles as well as its inventory of rescue and emergency equipment is likely to mean asking voters to replace the bond KFD will pay off in February 2015.

“Our newest ambulance unit, bought in 2008, had a cooling system problem and they had to take the cab off the unit, take the engine out and then reinstall everything. It’s the second time it’s happened and it was out of service for 10 weeks. One of the back-ups also broke down and we had to borrow a unit from Salem Fire Department,” Cowan said.

Cowan said district officials are considering asking voters for a replacement bond in November 2015 at or below the current level of about 12 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

In the interim, district officials are looking into a 20-year lease on a new ambulance to avoid being caught shorthanded if and/or when another breakdown occurs.

While ambulances are the the biggest concern given their necessity for medical calls, KFD’s ladder truck is reaching the end of its life in the current form. A new vehicle would cost $1.7 million, but Cowan said a $500,000 refurbishment will be the most likely route to a fix.

Other equipment, like chainsaws and the “jaws of life” used to extract drivers and passengers from crashed vehicles, are also high on the replacement list.

“Right now, we’re doing our homework and we’ll be coming out to the community and reconvene our Citizen Advisory Committee next spring. We talked about this with the CAC during the the run-up to last year’s local option levy, but this time we’ll be able to provide them with numbers,” Cowan said.