Owatonna Fire Department handles fewer incidents, sees more fires in 2012 - Owatonna MN: Owatonna Peoples Press

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Owatonna Fire Department handles fewer incidents, sees more fires in 2012

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Posted: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 4:30 pm | Updated: 5:12 pm, Thu Apr 4, 2013.

OWATONNA — Despite handling more calls to fight fires last year than it has in any of the last five years, the Owatonna Fire Department responded to fewer incidents in 2012 than in those previous years.

According to a report given by Fire Chief Mike Johnson to the Owatonna City Council on Tuesday night, the fire department responded to 426 incidents in 2012, the lowest in the last eight years and second lowest in the past decade.

Of those 426 incidents, 78 were fires, according to the report. The 78 fire calls were the most the department has handled since 2007. A majority of the incidents handled last year were checks on fire alarms, which the department did 105 times, the lowest since 2005.

Of the 78 fires, 23 were building fires, 11 were brush or grass fires and nine were cooking fires. Johnson said the department has applied for a public education grant to get stove top fire extinguishers that go under kitchen hoods to help reduce the number of cooking and kitchen fires the department handles.

The preventive efforts made by the fire department could have had an impact on the number of incidents it responded to in 2012. Last year, the department performed 2,530 fire code inspections, the most it has done in any year. Johnson noted that education and inspections are important, but many factors contribute to the number of incidents that department handles in a given year.

“We like to believe that our public education and code enforcement programs are having an influence on the statistics, but there are other things that are factors, too,” Johnson said. “It can be weather conditions, too. If we have a dry period where we have more wild land fires or if we have winter weather where we have more car accidents because of icy roads, those are a lot of things that can influence that statistic.”

Even with all of the calls the department handled, Johnson informed the council that the fire department came in 4 percent under budget in 2012. The department had an operating budget just over $1.2 million for 2012. Expenses for the year totaled over $1.15 million, with a majority of the expenses going to wages.

“It’s a department effort, and a lot of it is related to taking good care of our equipment and being safe when we’re out there,” Johnson said. “A lot of our firefighters are very good at coming up with ways to save money. If a piece of equipment breaks, they’re very good at going through, taking it into the shop and doing the repairs themselves. That saves us money. They work at trying to cut costs and save money wherever they can.”

Johnson said all the firefighters are aware of the budget and the goals and objectives of the department.

The Owatonna Fire Department can respond to calls quickly thanks to its quick response rescue model, Johnson said. The department has a residency program that has as many as six firefighters who live at the fire hall and who can respond to emergency calls within minutes.

“All fires have different variables that affect how fast it grows, but a general rule is that fires double in size every minute,” Johnson said. “If you have a quick response, that directly affects that curve as far as the damage to the building and the survivability to the occupants that are inside. It also makes it safer for our firefighters. When you get there early and you knock down that fire when it’s small, it’s better for everybody.”

A quick response is key in a fire situation. Johnson told the council that within minutes of a fire beginning, structural integrity of buildings and survivability diminish as a fire spreads.

After hearing Johnon’s report, the council was given a tour of the firehouse that included showing members the new rescue watercraft purchased by the department. Council members Kevin Raney, Dave Burbank and Greg Schultz also got the chance to view Owatonna from about 100 feet in the air after they were strapped in to the bucket of the rescue truck with equipment operator Jarrod Schmoll.

Mayor Tom Kuntz praised the fire department for its efforts, the leadership it gives the community and the example it sets for other city departments.

“They set the bar very high for other departments within the city to be able provide the same technical data that they do in their reports,” Kuntz said. “They do a great job. When you go down there for a tour or something, the people are interested and helpful.”

Johnson said he was proud of the work the department did in 2012 and expressed appreciation to community employers for allowing their employees to work on call as firefighters.

“We have business owners and employers that are willing to let employees leave and respond to a page call for an emergency,” Johnson said. “That affects the bottom line for their business, but because they do that we are able to keep our costs down on this department ... it’s a community effort.”

Reach reporter Al Strain at 444-2376 or follow him on Twitter.com@OPPalstrain

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