Growing, aging population taxes KFD resources

For the Keizer Fire District, 2019 was a banner year.

KFD responded to a record number of 5,678 calls for service last year, or approximately 15.5 calls per day and one call every 1.5 hours during a 24-hour period. It was a 3.1 percent increase from 2018 — KFD responded to 5,506 calls in 2018.

But what’s even more impressive has been KFD’s substantial growth in call volume over the last 10 years.

In 2009, KFD responded to 3,866 calls for service, meaning that the 5,678 calls they responded to in 2019 was nearly a 32 percent increase from 10 years prior. 

So why has there been such a massive uptick in call volume over the last 10 years? And how has KFD been able to handle the increase in calls?

Whenever there is population growth, there is a greater need for service. The population in Keizer has risen from 36,314 in 2009 to 39,692 in 2019, which is an increase of 8.5 percent. 

But according to Brian Butler, the division chief of operations with KFD, the call volume really started increasing in the last decade due to the number of assisted living facilities that have been built in Keizer over the last 10 years.

“We have had some very large facilities come in that take up a lot of our resources,” Butler said. 

Keizer Fire Chief Jeff Cowan, who has been with KFD since 2008, said that the station only gets around 70 calls per year for fires, but that the vast majority of calls go towards emergency medical services (EMS) — 4,531 calls in 2019 were for EMS services, which made up 80 percent of the total call volume.

And most of those EMS calls go to assisted living facilities. 

In 2019, KFD responded to 217 calls at Bonaventure of Keizer, (which opened in 2016), 200 calls to The Village at Keizer Ridge, (which opened in 2015), 135 calls to Emerald Pointe Senior Living, (which opened in 2009) and 124 calls to The Arbor at Avamere Memory Care (which opened in 2014). 

“When you have those high concentrations of population, you have of larger chance of getting responses to that area. Anytime you have a population increase, especially when it’s a elderly population increase, you’re going to have a greater need for services,” said Ann-Marie Storms, the Deputy Fire Marshal with KFD. “When you have large developments, you have one house taking up 5,000 square feet of land or more. When you have an apartment complex, you now have 20 apartments taking up the space of what would be normally be two houses.”

KFD also responded to 553 calls to the original Avamere facility on River Road in 2019 — the 553 calls were more than double the next highest address.

Meeting the challenge of the increasing call volume requires changing the structure of staffing, equipment and transportation. 

In 2009, KFD had Medic 35 as the one 24-hour, 7-day a week ambulance while Medic 36 was a 45-hour per week ambulance that was in service from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday.

KFD still runs Medic 35 at all hours of the day, but they changed the Medic 36 ambulance to be in service seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

“That was very significant at the time to meet the demand of our call volume,” Cowan said.

KFD currently has 35 full-time employees, but in recent years, they have changed the way they handle their additional firefighters.

Ten years ago, the district heavily relied on part-time volunteers to fill in gaps during certain shifts. But as time went on, that became more and more difficult to maintain. 

“As a district group, we were wearing our volunteers out. We were asking them to, on a part-time basis, maintain the certifications that our full-time career firefighters were doing, which is a very difficult feat. Then you add in all the community service and Christmas events we do. It’s very labor intensive,” Storms said. 

To combat the issue of dwindling volunteer numbers, KFD now uses the services of students in the fire program at Chemeketa Community College that are looking to become career firefighters.

While they’re still considered volunteers, KFD provides them with scholarship money in exchange for their service, but they are given more responsibility than the average volunteer. 

“We help with their college tuition, but they are now accountable for more because we’re helping to reimburse them,” Storms said. 

As far as funding is concerned, KFD successfully lobbied voters to increase their levy from 35 cents in 2009 to 59 cents in 2013 — the levy was renewed at 59 cents in 2018.

Along with the levy, KFD also passed an equipment bond in 2015 that allowed them to pay for new emergency equipment. The district replaced three engines, five medical units, one command vehicle, one rescue unit and one brush rig.

At the time, the newest vehicle that KFD had was 10 years old, while their oldest was nearly 25 years old.

Both Cowan and Butler acknowledged how important the support of the Keizer community has been in helping KFD get where they are today. 

“If we didn’t have the support of the community, I would be sending in equipment that would die on scene,” Butler said. 

“Our ties to the community are vital to our funding,” Cowan added.

Next week, Keizertimes will examine how the fire district expects it will need to change and grow to serve the city for the next 10 to 20 years.