Last year was record-breaking for the Norfolk Fire Division.
In a presentation of the city’s annual safety report at a Norfolk City Council meeting in March, Norfolk Fire Chief Scott Cordes announced that the fire division received more calls in 2020 than in any year since its founding in 1883.
Norfolk fire fielded 2,647 emergency calls last year, surpassing its previous record of 2,442 in 2018.
Calls for service included but were not limited to: vehicle accidents, fires (structural and rangeland), hazardous material spills, medical calls and natural gas leaks.
A number of factors contributed to a high volume of emergency calls in 2020, Cordes said, including an extremely dry year and a winter that, on occasion, brought extreme cold weather.
But the biggest component of a busy 2020, Cordes said, was the coronavirus.
“In a year, you can pick out pockets of reasons why the number of emergency calls increases at times; a bunch of ice storms coinciding with accidents and slips and falls on the ice, for example,” Cordes said. “You can look at those kinds of things, and you’re going to have an ebb and flow of those each year. But none of those factors really stuck out in 2020, other than insertion of COVID-19.”
The number of emergency calls from COVID patients seeking assistance was consistent for most of the year before “swelling” in October and November, Cordes said.
The average emergency response last year in Norfolk was 4.15 minutes, or about 4 minutes and 9 seconds, according to the report.
The National Fire Protection Association standard for emergency response is five minutes or less. About 80% of reported emergency incidents within Norfolk city limits were responded to within five minutes.
The length of calls also increased last year because of the necessary protocols amid the pandemic, he said.
For example, the emergency equipment used, as well as ambulances, had to be sanitized and decontaminated between each patient transport. Personnel also were required to don personal protective equipment (PPE), which lengthened preparation.
Emergency personnel also have had to shower and change uniforms more than normal, Cordes said.
“Not only did our calls go up, but many of those calls resulted in significant times when that ambulance was out of service, getting ready to go back into service for that next response,” he said. “There were a lot of days where all four of our ambulances were out of service at the same time — either responding or getting ready to respond to the next call.”
Days in which the fire division received back-to-back-to-back-to-back calls were fairly sporadic, Cordes said, but those types of days were experienced much more than usual last year.
“It rendered both of our stations empty many times to where there weren't any staff left to respond,” he said. “We could have had 10 ambulances, but it didn’t matter. We didn’t have anybody left to send out on those calls.”
The Norfolk Fire Division sports 30 full-time emergency response personnel — 10 each on three separate shifts. Each shift works 24 hours on, then 48 hours off.
Cordes said that while there were instances in the past year where personnel had to quarantine, there were no personnel who became infected by patients they were transporting to the hospital.
“You could get one outbreak of COVID on a shift and that will wipe out a third of our responders at any given time,” he said. “We were ultra careful that anybody who had a known exposure was kept out of service and tested before they came back — making sure they were symptom-free before we let them come back on duty.”
Norfolk’s 30 reserve firefighters were used more than normal in 2020 to fill the void of unavailable full-timers, Cordes said.
“They’re very important to our equation. We could not do what we do without them,” he said.
Norfolk fire responded to 354 fire-related calls last year, right on par with its 353 in 2019. That number has stayed between 300 and 400 for about the past decade, according to the report.
Structure fires dropped from 15 in 2019 to 13 in 2020, and the total structural dollar amount loss because of fires dropped from $932,100 to $257,920.
Cordes said what leads to fire calls on a yearly basis often varies. Last year, a historically dry year in Northeast Nebraska, there was a higher volume of grass fires, he said.
There also was an assortment of home heating malfunctions through a colder-than-normal winter, the chief said.
Fire calls overall are significantly down from what they were 30 to 40 years ago, Cordes said, because of a trend of safer products, well-built structures and homes and more involvement in the insurance industry.
“With our public awareness and prevention side of things, there was certainly a leveling off of the total number of fire calls starting several years ago, and that’s something we’ve really enjoyed and appreciated,” he said.
Cordes said the number of emergency calls has leveled off to replicate a more “typical” year, but the Norfolk Fire Division continues screening and testing of staff, as well as diligent use of personal protection equipment and thorough sanitation measures.
Cordes said one can’t predict how the rest of 2021 will compare to 2020, but fire and rescue personnel have shown they are capable of meeting any challenge.
“It was an interesting year; we collectively tried to manage the cards we were dealt in the best manner that we could,” Cordes said. “So you learn to adapt and be flexible and learn on the fly. As fire chief, I’m grateful for their commitment to the community, and I’m honored to get to work with them.”