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Fire Department seeks staffing boost

Evanston Fire Chief Alan Berkowsky urged aldermen this week to add six more firefighters to the department’s roster, an increase of over five percent.



Evanston Fire Chief Alan Berkowsky urged aldermen this week to add six more firefighters to the department’s roster, an increase of over five percent.

The chief said the department’s staffing was reduced in 1981 from 113 to 106, but that since 1984 calls for service have increased by 38 percent. The department currently has 110 workers, including 108 firefighters and two civilian employees. One additional employee is budgeted to start in September.

With current staffing levels the department leaves one of its three ambulances unstaffed, switching an engine crew to drive it as needed.

The city now spends $11.1 million on fire department operations and an additional $3.7 million to fund fire department pensions.

Chief Berkowsky said at the City Council’s Budget Policy Committee meeting that Evanston handled 8,063 fire and ambulance calls last year. By comparison, Skokie, with 116 firefighters, had 7,256 calls.

He said the National Fire Protection Association recommends having four firefighters per vehicle, but Evanston currently has three firefighters on its engines and ladder trucks.

Chief Berkowsky said Evanston does benefit from having two hospitals in town, which makes ambulance runs shorter than in most communities and allows the crews to get back in service more quickly.

Despite the staffing issues, Evanston has maintained a Class 3 fire protection rating from the Insurance Services Office.

That places Evanston in the top four percent of the 45,000 fire departments the ISO rates nationwide.

In the Chicago area only Arlington Heights and Skokie have the top Class 1 rating from the ISO. Nationwide less than one department in a thousand is in the top tier.

The average of the ISO ratings for the 17 communities in Evanston’s Mutual Aid Box Alarm Service region is 3.7.

Better ratings correlate with lower fire losses, and so insurance companies charge less for property insurance in communities with stronger ISO ratings.

Fire Division Chief Sam Hunter said Evanston’s lack of a fire training tower is one of the things that has held the city back from getting the top rating. Both Arlington Heights and Skokie have training towers.

He said the ISO also looks at staffing levels, water supplies and a department’s communications equipment.

Chief Hunter said the city has improved its water distribution and communications systems for firefighting in recent years.

The city recently applied for a federal grant that could pay part of the cost of hiring the six additional firefighters Chief Berkowsky is seeking.

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