The Duluth Fire Department was busier than ever in 2019.
The agency responded to 13,698 calls last year, up 3.3% from 13,255 in 2018, according to data released by the city Tuesday. It adds to a steady climb during the past decade, with the department first hitting the 10,000 mark in 2013.
"We're seeing a lot more increase in our medical calls or other rescue-type calls, more than structure fires," Chief Shawn Krizaj said. "Why? That's a little harder to explain."
Only 260 calls — less than 2% of the total call volume last year — involved an actual fire. But medical and rescue calls totaled nearly 5,500, while miscellaneous incidents, such as smoke scares, lock-outs and animal rescues, increased to more than 6,800. Those are the types of incidents that make up the vast majority of the department's response.
Krizaj said the reasons behind the increase in call volume are likely multifaceted, and not necessarily a bad thing.
"I think, in general, there has been a little bit of a cultural shift where people are more willing to call 911 or look for help," he said. "I think of my grandparents. In their generation, they just took care of stuff themselves. They just figured it out one way or another. I think people now are more willing to look for help, to ask for help. There isn't that stigma. We certainly encourage people to call 911 for whatever their issue is."
Duluth saw 90 total structure fires last year, causing an estimated $1.65 million in damage. Seventy of those involved houses, apartment buildings, hotels or other residential buildings.
That was on par with the 88 structure fires reported in 2018. The city has not experienced a fire death since 2017.
"One of the challenges we see in our city is the amount of older buildings that we have," Krizaj said. "On one hand, it's a little easier because they burn slower and we have more time to actually get in there and put it out. On the other hand, you're dealing with building codes from 1920 or 1960 or whatever."
Rescue and medical calls increased by 1.6% last year, while false alarms were down by 6.2%.
The chief acknowledged the increasing call volume can create some strain on his staff's time. The department has 148 ½ positions — 132 of which are in operations, or what most people would generally refer to as "firefighters."
"When the run volume is going up, certainly it's more time out of their day," Krizaj said. "And where that gets challenging is how we balance training in with that and some of the other duties they have, like fire hydrant inspections every fall and shoveling hydrants after storms. As we see more runs, that makes it tricky. But, obviously, calls for service are what's most important."
Krizaj said the department looks at its data to determine how to better direct staff, equipment and training resources. That includes the Life Safety Division, which is responsible for residential inspections and educational initiatives.
Reminding people to check the batteries in their smoke alarms or warning of the dangers of smoking in bed might sound obvious, Krizaj said, but those efforts can pay off.
"The fire prevention piece is probably one of the most important things we can do," Krizaj said. "I think that has some of the biggest effects on keeping the numbers down."