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Busy time for the BFD: Bemidji Fire Department sees hectic but productive 2016

BEMIDJI—As Bemidji Fire Chief David Hoefer presented a bevvy of statistics to local government officials Thursday night, one number in particular was a point of pride.

David Hoefer

"(A) statistic that I really like to see is no loss of life last year from fire. A few years prior...we had years of multiple fire fatalities in the Bemidji community, and as your fire chief that was disheartening," Hoefer told the group gathered at the department's new Lake Avenue fire station. "Internally we really looked hard at what the reasons for that were, and you're going to see that some of the initiatives that we have taken since then have been in an attempt to deal with that."

The department's list of 2016 initiatives and accomplishments presented at its annual meeting was extensive, and focused largely on fire prevention. Hoefer said the BFD's prevention efforts are twofold, focusing on how to prevent fires and how to respond appropriately if one does start.

In 2016, the fire department installed 700 smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in local homes free of charge as part of a five-year partnership with the Red Cross. During the five-year period, which began in 2015, the Red Cross will provide the department with as many smoke alarms as it requests free of charge; the BFD then does what Hoefer called a "blitz" in the spring to encourage people to take home and install alarms.

The BFD's participation in a program meant to help communities better prevent and respond to wildfires was another point of pride for Hoefer. In 2016, Bemidji was one of four communities nationwide selected for the Community Planning Assistance for Wildfires Program. As part of the program experts will visit Bemidji and provide free recommendations to the city and fire department.

"We know that we have a significant wildfire challenge in Bemidji and we know that our response model in Bemidji is second to none," Hoefer said. "But we still have wildfire problems, so the next step for us is on the prevention side."

Hoefer anticipates that the department will receive recommendations by this fall.

The department also worked to prevent fires and fire-related damage and injuries by educating the community on how to properly respond to cooking fires, installing a fire sprinkler and alarm system at its downtown fire station and implementing a new fire code.

"Fire prevention is pretty broad and our organization really embraces the prevention side," Hoefer said. "We know that there's only so much we can do on the reactive response side. We can do a lot on the prevention side. So preventing a fire from starting or minimizing the impact once it does start is what our prevention program's all about."

Despite the BFD's high-key prevention efforts the department remained one of the busiest in the state. In 2016, the department responded to a total of 2,195 calls for service, up from 1,152 in 2015. According to the recently released 2016 Bemidji Fire Department Report, calls included:

• 107 fires (36 building, 30 land, 16 vehicles)

• 630 rescue/emergency medical services (including 448 medical and 33 Sanford EMS)

• 61 hazardous conditions/spills/carbon monoxide

• 1,157 service calls to assist other agencies

• 36 good intention calls/prescribing fires/smoke scares

• 201 false alarms

• 2 special incident/overpressure ruptures

Hoefer also included a list from the State Fire Marshal's office showing all Minnesota cities that had responded to 90 or more fires in 2015, the most recent year for which statistics were available. Bemidji came in 23rd on the list with 97 fires, one spot higher than in 2014.

Bemidji came in just behind much larger cities such as Eagan, Maple Grove and Mankato. Despite the large number of fires, Hoefer said 2016 was an average year for fires and the high ranking was due largely to the expansive area the department is responsible for protecting.

The BFD's service area included 522 square miles that contain 15 townships—10 of which are in Beltrami County, five of which are in Hubbard—and the cities of Wilton, Turtle River and Bemidji. The department serves an estimated population of 35,000 people and 18 local government units.

"Although this is a high number it doesn't mean we've got a significant fire problem in Bemidji," Hoefer said. "Statistically, when we compare it to other communities and we do a county-wide statistical analysis, we are actually lower than the state average as far as fire per capita."

A new home for Station 2

This year the department's annual meeting was held in the BFD's new fire station, located on Lake Avenue in the Nymore neighborhood. The $1.2 million building was high on Hoefer's list of 2016 accomplishments and he encouraged attendees to take a tour after the meeting.

The new building includes far more amenities than the old Station 2, which did not have bathrooms. Firefighters working out of the new station have access to a kitchen, a meeting room, a conference room, showers, laundry facility and a fitness room.

Though there was a short setback after a water pipe failure in December, Hoefer said the department plans to have an open house to show off the station in May.

"This is a great addition to our community and a great accomplishment for us in 2016," Hoefer said. "We're really proud of the building. We're thankful that we have the opportunity to have a building like this."

Along with the new building the fire department also gained new recruits in 2016, something it—and most other Minnesota fire departments—has struggled with in past year. According to the BFD's annual report, the department began the year with four vacancies, which increased to five after a paid on call firefighter was offered a full-time fire fighting position. The department received 16 applications, the report said, and hired four of the candidates who are currently going through a training program.

Overall, Hoefer classified 2016 as "hectic" but recognized the department's positive steps forward.

"We have a busy year emergency response-wise but we also had a year which had a lot of successes," Hoefer said. "Overall a hectic, busy, but very productive year for us."

2016 Fire Department calls for service:

107 Fires (36 building, 30 land, 16 vehicles)

597 Rescue/emergency services (including 448 medical and 33 Sanford EMS)

61 Hazardous conditions/spills/carbon monoxide

1,157 Service calls to assist other agencies

36 Good intention calls/prescribing fires/smoke scares

201 False alarms

2 Special incidents/overpressure ruptures

2016 fire impact:

No serious fire-related injuries

No fire-related deaths

An estimated $1.3 million of property lost

An estimated $6 million of property saved

BFD quick facts:

522 square-mile coverage area

3 cities and 15 townships served

35,000 permanent residents

3 fire stations

48 firefighters and fire officers

Grace Pastoor

Grace Pastoor covers crime, courts and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. Contact her at (218) 333-9796 or gpastoor@bemidjipioneer.com

(218) 333-9796
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