The Ottumwa Courier


February 23, 2013

Fire department shoulders busiest year ever

OTTUMWA — Ottumwa firefighters were on the move last year, responding to the most calls ever, tackling three Hazmat situations and arson investigations.

The Ottumwa Fire Department experienced its busiest year ever in 2012 with a 17 percent increase in call volume. They responded to 2,507 calls in 2011, which jumped to 2,999 calls in 2012, an average of 8.2 calls per day.

“It was a productive year for the fire department,” said Fire Chief Tony Miller. “Calls increased 17 percent, which is both good and bad. But our guys were up to the challenge with all the training and off-duty stuff they do. We’re looking forward to bigger and better things this year.”

One new initiative for the OFD is partnering with the American Red Cross to put a smoke detector in every home in Ottumwa. Just last week, the department received a donation of nearly $6,000 worth of smoke detectors from the State Fire Marshal’s Office.

The department operates with 32 staff: Miller, Deputy Fire Chief Cory Benge and three 10-person crews.

“We could always use more, but the reality is we’re probably not going to get more,” Miller said.

The department handled more structure fires in 2012 than in 2011 as well as an onslaught of medical calls and calls to car accidents.

In 2011, the OFD handled 1,838 medical and motor vehicle crash calls; last year, they saw 2,133.

Capt. Pat Short said he wasn’t sure the exact reason for the increase in calls.

The Southeast Iowa Response Group (SIRG), which is operated by the OFD and responds to hazardous materials situations (Hazmat) in 11 counties, responded to three incidents last year: a paint spill in a sewer system, which then ended up in a creek in Jefferson County, two trucks colliding in Batavia and a fuel tank rollover in Ottumwa.

“The two calls in Jefferson County were within a week of each other,” Miller said. “We respond when we get dispatched out by the fire chief of that jurisdiction.”

Benge, who also serves as the department’s fire marshal, investigated six fires last year, three of them leading to arrests of one adult and four juveniles.

Derrick Shoop, 41, of Maquoketa, was charged with second-degree arson for setting an abandoned house on fire on Madison Avenue on Jan. 1, 2012.

Two juveniles were charged after they lit envelopes on fire out of an ATM at River Community Credit Union.

Two other juveniles were charged after they lit the playground equipment on fire at James Elementary School in June, causing a total of $15,000 in damage.

“Our deputy chief is very proactive about getting to the cause of what happened, why it happened and who caused it,” Miller said. “He investigates it to the fullest extent, and if there’s enough evidence to prosecute, we do. He goes right after it to make sure people who made the fires have charges brought against them.”

Soon, Benge will be sent to the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy in order to gain the ability to arrest people. Right now, Benge can only investigate fire-related crimes while working alongside the Ottumwa Police Department, who can then make an arrest.

The department also purchased $21,000 of rescue equipment for high-angle, confined space and trench rescue with donations from Cargill Meat Solutions, Indian Hills Rural Emergency Services Training Center and SIRG.

In May, the firefighters will take a three-day class with a professional instructor to teach them how to use the equipment in a confined-space situation.

“It’s been many, many years since we’ve had a confined space class,” Miller said. “In confined space, you have to go by protocols, what the law says, do certain things at the right time and document everything. If there’s a situation where someone gets hurt, injured or killed, they’ll evaluate exactly what happened, why it happened and what we could have done to prevent it.”

For example, if there was ever a problem with the city’s sewer department, Miller said the OFD would be called in to handle a confined-space crisis.

“Sometimes it’s pretty dangerous because there’s no oxygen in there, which is how people can die,” he said.

Unfortunately, the OFD responded to one civilian fire death in 2012, though there were no firefighter injuries.

The accidental death was an unusual situation, Miller said. The 40-year-old Ottumwa man was killed outside his home on Osceola Street in March.

“He was putting gas out of a can on a campfire and the gas can exploded and he lit on fire,” Benge said.

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