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Total fire and emergency medical service calls to the Evanston Fire Department hit an all-time record last year, but Fire Chief Greg Klaiber says that so far the department seems to be able to handle the growing demand.

“We’ve been operating with the same staffing levels on the street for my entire 30 year career,” Klaiber says.

“We’re calling neighboring communities more than ever for mutual aid and ambulance calls — more than they’re calling us,” Klaiber added, “but we’re not putting our community at risk” and response times remain under the desired four-minute average.

Department records show that fire calls have risen 17 percent, from 3,095 in 2004 to 3,637 last year. EMS calls are up 29 percent over the decade, from 4,628 in 2004 to 5,980 last year.

Just 120 of last year’s fire calls were for structure fires.

While Evanston’s population has grown only 1.5 percent since 2000, Klaiber says changes in the nature of the city’s housing stock and population have contributed to the rising call volume.

“We have an increasing elderly population and several long-term care facilities,” he said, which brings more frequent calls for ambulance service.

And the increasing number of mid-rise and high-rise buildings means more alarm and sprinkler systems — “and when they’re activated, we respond.”

Taller buildings also mean more elevators — and the department now gets several hundred calls a year to respond to alarms about people trapped in elevators — although most of those calls turn out to be false alarms.

“The system works, but it is being challenged,” Klaiber says, “and it’s a credit to the firefighter-paramedics who work hard every day and take whatever comes their way.”

Klaiber says he hasn’t heard from Wilmette or Skokie — the two communities Evanston most often requests help from — that they’re feeling put upon, adding, “We have a very good workikng relationship with both departments.”

Because Evanston is bordered by the lake on the east and by Chicago, which doesn’t participate in the suburban mutual aid system, to the south, it has fewer adjoining communities to call on for aid than its neighbors do.

The city makes about $1 million a year charging for ambulance runs in which a patient is transported to the hospital. But that makes only a small dent in the department’s $14 million budget.

It also recovers about $100,000 a year in false alarm fees — but charges for those only start if a property has more than 10 false alarms in a year.

Klaiber says there’s been no major change in the number of false alarm calls in recent years.

But he says the growing number of carbon monoxide detectors installed in homes has led to more calls to check on those alarms.

Only two people have lost their lives in fires in Evanston over the past decade, and none last year. The estimated property loss from fires hit $3.36 million last year, which was the highest figure in more than a decade.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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