Duluth Fire Department responds to record number of calls in 2022
Firefighters have been stretched due to retirements, deployments and other departures.
DULUTH — For the local fire department, 2022 will go down in the books as one of the busiest years ever.
Chief Shawn Krizaj described 2022 as "a challenging year for us."
"I'd like to thank all of our staff in all three of our divisions — operations, life safety and training — for their dedication to the fire department and the city and, of course, all of its citizens," he said.
Krizaj said the fire department responded to 15,281 calls in 2022, breaking the 15,000 mark for the first time. "That's kind of a big milestone for us," he said, noting that the Duluth Fire Department is the third-busiest in the state, ranking behind only Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The call volume for 2022 represents a 3.2% increase compared with the 14,803 calls local firefighters responded to the previous year.
Meanwhile, the department struggled with a large number of retirements and departures, with a number of younger firefighters leaving Duluth to pursue opportunities elsewhere as well. On top of that, nine firefighters took extended leaves to fulfill military service obligations.
Oftentimes, we're the catch-all when people don't know who to call.
Being shorthanded has been a challenge, according to Krizaj.
"It puts a great burden on our staff. It increases the workload," he said, noting the demands placed on people in the department's operations division, responding to calls, and on life safety staff.
"It was really a tough year for our staff, but they picked it up. They were here every day to support the continuous operations of our department," Krizaj said.
Staff responded by picking up extra shifts and working extra overtime. Krizaj said the situation was stressful not only for the department's employees, but also for their families, with some staff not seeing loved ones for three to four days at a stretch.
"So, I'd also like to thank the families of our firefighters and the other people who support them. The men and women who work here have got great support systems we hope, both internally and externally," Krizaj said.
He said the role of firefighters has become more expansive with time. "Oftentimes, we're the catch-all when people don't know who to call," he said.
While calls for service were up overall, Deputy Chief of Operations Mike Consie noted that the 291 fire calls the department received in 2022 actually reflects a slight dip from the 315 fire runs recorded the previous year.
He referred to the decline as exciting.
"Fires are destructive and can result in the loss of life and property," Consie said, suggesting local fire prevention and education efforts are paying off.
Consie said the department also was encouraged to see water rescues fall to 18 in 2022 — less than half the number it responded to in 2021, when it responded to 39 calls for help on the water. He again credited education efforts and the beach safety system the city has put in place to warn swimmers when unsafe conditions arise that could result in dangerous rip currents.
Consie said the operations division is nearly back at full strength, with 129 people now in its ranks and a new firefighter slated to join the team later this month.
Deputy Chief Rob Morehouse said the department hired 22 new firefighters in 2022, with the help of two recruit academies — one in May and another in October — offering more than 300 combined hours of hands-on training.
Deputy Chief of Life Safety Jonathan Otis, who oversees a staff of 13, described the role of the division.
"Anything that's a lights or sirens emergency, that's going to be the operations division," he said. "And anything else outside of that is handled by the life safety division."
He explained that staff handles code enforcement, fire investigations, public education, building and housing safety, blight and snow removal enforcement.
A new reporting system was rolled out last year, enabling people to notify the city of properties that were not complying with local snow removal requirements. That system collected 410 complaints, but, Otis said, "We did not issue any citations, and we did not charge any fees associated with that."
Instead, life safety staff responded with sternly worded letters advising property owners to clear their walkways of snow, and Otis said that almost without fail, the recipients were quick to address the concerns raised.
"So, I want to thank citizens for really stepping up and being good neighbors," he said.
Otis said life safety staff also performed 5,986 inspections in 2022, noting that the city saw 132 new housing units added to the local market last year.