The Township of McHenry Fire Protection District forecasts 7,400 calls for service in 2022, a 7.6% increase from 2021.
These higher numbers come on top of a 21% increase in total ambulance calls over the past two years, Deputy Chief Steve Spraker said.
And just like the private sector, Fire Chief Rudy Horist said fire departments are seeing fewer applicants for vacancies, longer lead times for equipment and supply chain slowdowns.
Fewer people wanting to become firefighters is part of the reason why earlier this year the fire district chose to start adding full-time firefighters for the first time, Horist said.
“In the fire service, the national candidate pool is dwindling. There’s not the same number of people interested in the fire department as there were a few years ago,” Horist said. With that in mind, the board voted in December to start moving away from a mostly part-time staff, approving 12 full-time firefighters/paramedics.
In May, they approved 12 more full-time firefighters for a total of 24, Horist said. They join other full-time office staff, lieutenants and battalion chiefs, and 90 part-time firefighters rounding out the roster to cover each of the district’s five stations around the clock.
The district was able to cover all of its shifts and stations with the part-time staff, Horist said. “The transition to more full-time people was not based on a problem with our service, it was more based on the availability of our part-time people. This helps us ensure that we have consistent 24-hour coverage. 24, seven days a week.”
Residents shouldn’t notice any changes in response times or on their tax bill, he said.
“We’re spending less on other things and more on salaries” to cover the extra costs, Spraker said.
Kerry Uhlhorn is one of these new full-time firefighters. For the past nine years, Uhlhorn has worked part-time at Wonder Lake, Richmond, or the McHenry Township Fire District, alternating between any two of them at all times.
As a part-time worker, Uhlhorn said she doesn’t have a typical week. “If there were free places, I would jump to choose one. There wasn’t much consistency in my schedule.
Moving permanently to the McHenry Township Fire District was an easy choice, as many of the firefighters who trained her were already working there, she said.
How to replace and staff its ambulances is the next question for the fire district, which covers Bull Valley, Johnsburg, Holiday Hills, Lakemoor, McCullom Lake, McHenry, Ringwood, parts of Wonder Lake and Island Lake, and County unincorporated McHenry.
The fire district applied for and received a $361,000 grant from Advance McHenry County to purchase a sixth ambulance to cover increased service calls.
Five more are on order, part of a seven-year rotation for the vehicles, Spraker said. Two could arrive in October, before the previous date given to them, and one in March 2023. Two more, ordered in July, will not arrive until 2024, he said.
When the ministry orders the grant-funded ambulance, it expects a lead time of 18 months to two years.
Currently, the township fire district has seven ambulances, Spraker said. Five active units are housed at the district’s five fire stations and two are kept on standby – for special events and festivals, high call volumes and if any of the other five go down, it said. he declares.
Blackouts happen, Spraker said. An ambulance was out of service for 10 weeks because the ministry could not get an air compressor for it.
The transmission failed on another ambulance. This part appeared in just two days.
Spraker also noted that more ambulance calls were coming in with longer transport times. Transport time for a patient to and from a hospital can range from 30 minutes to over an hour.
“We can’t just say sorry” and not transport a patient because an ambulance crew got out, Spraker said.
The district has taken other steps to help reduce these calls.
Falls, lifting aids and mental health assessments account for about a third of the total medical call volume, so the district runs educational programs to prevent falls, Spraker said. And Deputy Chief Karen Bush has been working with social workers in McHenry County, advising on how to reduce mental health ambulance calls, she said.
“The goal of the program is to get the job done up front and match resources as needed so that police and firefighters aren’t needed,” Bush said.
COVID-19 has also changed call volume.
When the pandemic first hit in March 2020, ambulance calls plummeted because patients didn’t want to come to the hospital. In the summer, however, that changed. People who had delayed seeking care began to need help, Spraker said.
But since March 13, 2020, the district has transported 769 people with COVID-19, Spraker said.