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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Valley Fire saw record call volume in January as other agencies also reported surge related to frigid weather

Spokane Valley Fire Department firefighters put out a fire on row of bushes at the corner of Sullivan and Euclid on May 24, 2017.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

The Spokane Valley Fire Department logged its highest number of calls for help in one month in January, thanks largely in part to car crashes resulting from snow and ice and pipes that froze in frigid temperatures.

The high number of calls in January wasn’t unique to Spokane Valley, though. Other local agencies, including the Spokane Fire Department and Spokane County Fire District 4, are also reporting an abnormally high number of emergency responses in January.

“This is the most in any month that we’ve ever had in history,” Fire Chief Frank Soto Jr. of Valley Fire said. “It’s just due to the weather. Even though there wasn’t a lot of snow, it was really impactful.”

In all, the department responded to 2,196 calls in January, which beat out December 2022 by 16 calls to set the record. That number included 179 calls for building alarms that were mostly set off by frozen pipes and sprinkler systems, and 95 car crashes. As is usual, emergency medical services calls accounted for the lion’s share of the responses at 79%.

The surge in calls sent crews scurrying from one end of the district to the other, which covers 75 square miles and includes the cities of Spokane Valley, Liberty Lake and Millwood, in addition to portions of unincorporated Spokane County.

“We had two days in there with 100-plus calls,” Soto said.

Spokane Fire Department spokesman Justin de Ruyter said their crews responded to 6,666 calls in January compared to 5,194 calls in January 2023.

“If I were to make an educated guess, I would say we probably did break our record, just like all the other local agencies,” he said.

An average day usually has between 200 and 250 calls for help, de Ruyter said.

“Two-hundred fifty to 300 is busy,” he said. “We don’t get that a lot, but we had 11 of those days in January.”

Spokane County Fire District 4 sprawls across 330 square miles in north Spokane County, including the city of Deer Park. Like other districts, the number of annual calls has been rising steadily, in this case up by 24% over the past three years. In 2023, there were 4,166 calls for help and the district usually responds to between 300 and 350 calls per month, Capt. David LaChapelle said. In January, District 4 responded to 409 calls.

LaChapelle said he’s not sure if that makes January the top month in the history of the district.

“It probably could be, but I don’t want to say ever,” he said.

While the snowy roads didn’t alter the number of car crashes by much, it’s the bitter cold that seemed to have the most impact, LaChapelle said.

“I think the big part of it was the freeze, the extended freeze,” he said. “We had a lot of water calls.”

During the month, the busiest area for Valley Fire was in the response zone of Station 8, located on Wilbur Road just west of Pines Road and north of Interstate 90. Crews there responded to 377 calls during the month, which is an average of at least 12 responses per day. Other high-response areas were the zones covered by Station 10 in Greenacres with 320 calls and Station 7 on South Evergreen Road with 311 calls.

When surges like that happen, the department reschedules training exercises to free up crews and equipment, Soto said.

The department also has automatic mutual aid agreements with surrounding fire districts, meaning that whatever crew is closest to the incident will respond, no matter what department they work for.

Those agreements also work well when one department has a large incident that either requires extra crews or crews to respond to new calls that come in while other crews are still busy with the major incident.

“That’s how we cover each other,” Soto said. “That is your levy dollars at work.”

Though the weather helped bring about a record-setting month, Soto said he’s not surprised to see the call record broken.

The number of calls the department responds to has been increasing steadily over the years, particularly over the past decade, as the number of residents inside the department boundaries has increased.

Over the past 10 years, the department has seen an 80% increase in the number of calls it responds to annually, Soto said.

The department has plans to build an 11th fire station in the next few years to help handle the increase in call volume and population.

“The last three years, we’ve had quite the growth,” Soto said.

The increase is also partly tied to people who aren’t able to get health insurance for whatever reason, Soto said.

“People who don’t have health insurance, they’re going to call 911,” he said. “We are their health insurance.”

Valley Fire responded to 23,132 calls for service in 2023, similar to the 23,266 calls for assistance in 2022. Soto said he thinks that means the increases may be leveling out for a time, though there can be spikes due to weather, as happened last month.

There was a big spike in the number of responses in 2021 when compared to 2020. In 2020, there were 18,366 calls for help, compared to 22,208 in 2021.