November 14, 2009 in Washington Voices

Nonemergency calls costly to fire department

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Spokane Valley Fire Department patrons could save some cash by calling a plumber instead of the fire department when their toilets back up.

Such calls are fairly common and sometimes are a source of amusement, but they also are expensive.

“Every call that comes to us, we pay a dispatch fee,” Assistant Fire Marshal Bill Clifford said.

The regional fire dispatching center covers its costs by charging the department $77.50 for each call the center handles. It makes no difference whether there’s a house on fire or clogged commode.

Clifford said several dubious calls in the past two weeks included a woman who thought some workmen had left a light on in her attic and that it might be a fire hazard. Instead of calling the workmen back, she called the fire department.

Firefighters found no light on when they peered through the scuttle hole to the attic. Eventually, they discovered that the woman had seen a street light reflecting off metal on the gable end of her house.

Then there was the intoxicated man who called the fire department claiming he smelled natural gas. Firefighters detected no gas leak, and noted the man’s electricity had been turned off because he hadn’t paid his bill.

The man was waiting for Avista to restore the power when he called the fire department. While firefighters were at the home, an Avista representative arrived and the gas odor was forgotten.

“Satisfied with the return of electricity, the homeowner stated that he had no concerns and would require no further assistance from the fire department,” firefighters reported.

It’s a delicate issue, Clifford said. If someone really suspects a gas leak or thinks there’s a fire in the attic, fire officials want to be called.

But it’s better to call the water district if water seeps up from a cracked water main, or to call the school district if there’s a problem with the playground irrigation system.

Clifford said someone recently called around midnight to report that the irrigation system at the old University High School, now used by Valley Christian School, had been running all day.

“We have a duty to respond to make sure there is no emergency, but we get there and there is nothing we can do because most of these systems turn off and on inside the building,” Clifford said. “Every one of those little calls costs us.”

He said there were 12 reports of structure fires in the two-week reporting period that ended Wednesday night, but five turned out to be recreational fires or illegal slash fires. The actual structure fires all were minor.

Similarly, a Tuesday evening “brush” fire at 115 N. Farr Road might have been a house fire if the resident hadn’t been careful to take a bag of fireplace ashes outdoors. Sometimes, Clifford said, people put a bucket of ashes in their garage and, “the next thing we know, we have a fire going up the wall.”

In this case, though, the resident put the ashes on top of a pile of leaves.

“So guess what happened,” Clifford said.

As usual, most of the automatic alarms the department received were false. But a couple of the 19 calls weren’t bogus.

One was for a fire in a clothes dryer at the Mirabeau Park Hotel on Wednesday afternoon, but employees put it out with an extinguisher before firefighters arrived.

An alarm Monday at 12:43 a.m. at 1911 E. Nixon Ave., relayed by an alarm-monitoring company, was caused by an overheated pan of food.

Clifford said the resident who let firefighters into the home was unaware of the alarm. Another resident, a man who had been cooking, was found asleep on a couch.

“This person got lucky that it really didn’t cause any major problem and nobody was hurt,” Clifford said.

In all, the department responded to 388 calls in the two-week period, including 313 medical emergencies and 32 vehicular accidents that sent 11 people to hospitals with injuries that weren’t life-threatening.


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