The electronic tones that echo throughout the Kent Fire Department calling firefighters whenever there's an emergency are ringing more often with each passing year.
The department has steadily seen a rise in call volume each year since the 1980s when Kent Fire Chief Dave Manthey started as a firefighter for the city.
"It hasn’t really fluctuated," Manthey said. "It’s all gone straight up."
For the past three years, the department has responded to more than 4,000 calls annually.
In 2011, Kent firefighters received 4,105 calls, including fire, EMS, mutual aid and special team responses. That means the department averaged 11.2 calls per day, or about one call every two hours.
In 2010, the department received 4,080 total calls. Total calls to the department in 2009 were 4,053.
"When I was first hired here ... we were running 1,200 calls" per year, Manthey said.
Kent fire's coverage area includes the city, with its population of a 28,904, the residences and businesses of Franklin Township and the Kent State University campus. Kent State accounted for 1,728 of the department's calls between 2009 and 2011, which is about 14 percent of the total calls in that time period.
For a department with 33 members, the high call volume and large geographical coverage area can prove taxing on men and equipment.
"Look at your personal car," Manthey said. "If you were to take your personal car and put 1,000 miles a month on it, you’d probably get 20 years, 30 years out of your car. But if you start putting 15,000, 20,000 miles on your car a month it wears out."
The department operates on three shifts. One shift of between seven and 10 firefighters and officers will work 24 hours straight from 8 a.m. to 8 a.m. and then get the next two days off duty.
But they're not really off duty. Once their shift ends, those firefighters are available for a shift page for the next 24 hours. That means if the on-duty shift gets overwhelmed with calls, the department can issue a shift page to call back those off-duty firefighters to respond to a call or staff the station until the on-duty shift personnel return.
Manthey said the number of callbacks (firefighters who respond to shift pages) has fallen — something he described as a reflection of how busy the department is.
"On days where guys get beat up, they go home and they try to rest," he said. "But with the steady increase and with our staffing … the guys get pretty beat up."
That means the department instead relies on general alarms, a page where any off-duty firefighter can respond to back up the on-duty personnel.
"Our staffing hasn’t changed dramatically in years, as opposed to our call volume, which continues to go up," Manthey said. "And our staffing stays the same, regardless of how many new, multi-person student housing (units) they put in. Or nursing homes, or our new downtown project. Everything around us is changing, except for our staffing."
The increased call levels might suggest more fires in Kent, but that's not the case.
"Eighty-five percent of what we do or better anymore is EMS," Manthey said.
Total calls for EMS, or ambulance, responses and not fire responses in Kent for 2011 were 3,153. Actual fire calls in 2011 peaked at 952.
That stark contrast also is reflected in over time expenses, which break down as follows for fire and EMS calls for the past three years:Overtime Costs EMS Fire 2011 $94,000 $28,000 2010 $94,000 $37,000 2009 $85,000 $40,000
Manthey's unsure as to the reason for the disparity, but he speculates that people might call for an ambulance instead of making a doctor's appoint more often today than past generations for minor ailments.
Or, people who can't afford a doctor's visit or emergency room trip might instead rely on their city's EMTs.
"We still make house calls," the chief said. "We’re there in a moment’s time."
As for the small number of actual fires, Manthey attributes that to improved fire prevention technology — Kent also has two fire prevention officers.
"With the strides that have been taking place in technology and prevention, we just don’t burn like we used to," he said. "I came on way back in the day when nobody had sprinkler systems, nobody had automatic extinguishing devices. Things used to burn a lot more in the old days than they do now."
City officials briefly considered in 2011 applying for a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant that would have allowed the city to hire four extra firefighters. But the city would have been responsible for the full costs starting in the third year and every year thereafter, and city administrators determined Kent could not afford the estimated $380,000 cost in the third year of the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant program.
A recent Portage Area Fire Emergency Response Study, conducted by fire officials at departments throughout Portage County, determined that Kent should be staffing a minimum 12 firefighters per shift compared with the seven to 10 on duty most days.
Manthey said he and other city safety officials prepare for the day when the city might be able to increase staffing to lower the burden and stress levels of the department's members.
"The fire department recognizes the city’s capabilities at this point in time, and we try to work within those capabilities," Manthey said. "We do the best we can with what we have. Would it be great to have a few additional guys on shift? Yeah, it sure would."