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Willmar's firefighters had their busiest year in 5 years in 2009

In this undated photo from 2009, firefighters with the Willmar Fire Department respond to a grass fire along Kandiyohi County Road 5, about six miles north of Willmar. The fire burned around a metal machine shed, a truck and close to a house. A report shows 2009 was the busiest year of the past five years for Willmar's fire department. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

July and August were the busiest months, Friday was the busiest day, and the afternoon was the busiest time for the Willmar Fire Department in 2009.

"These are the times when you want to stay alert,'' says Fire Chief Marv Calvin.

The statistics are found in the fire department's annual report to the Willmar City Council. Calvin said the report is required by the city charter. The report said 2009 was the busiest year during the past five years -- with the department responding to 369 calls, an increase from the 318 calls in 2008.

There were 324 calls in 2007, 313 in 2006 and 316 in 2005. Approximately one-third of all 2009 calls were false alarms, with most false alarms caused by faulty alarms and sprinkler systems or user errors.

July and August were tied for first as the busiest months with 40 calls each month. The second busiest month was October with 38 calls.

Friday was the busiest day of week with 63 calls on Fridays, followed by Wednesdays with 56 calls.

The hours of 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. were the busiest times with 30 calls for each time, followed by 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. for the second busiest at 28 calls each.

Calvin said the department does not use the information for any purpose other than reporting to the council.

"With a paid, on-call department, there's really not a whole lot you can do planning that way,'' Calvin said. "You try to have your people available at all times. We know that we are busier in the afternoons. Our guys are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.''

The department had a significant personnel change between Jan. 27 and Feb. 27 last year when 16 firefighters took advantage of the department's pension program and retired. Calvin said the retirements were unexpected and the department lost more than 300 combined years of experience and knowledge.

The retirements reduced staffing levels to 25, said Calvin.

Efforts were made to rebuild staffing, however. On March 19, 2009, six new firefighters completed initial training. Calvin said five were retained and one deployed into the military.

This year, said Calvin, applications closed on April 5 to fill eight positions. He said the department received 34 applications. Calvin hopes to have selections made by the end of April and firefighters start May 4. He said selections will bring the department up to 37 paid on-call firefighters.

The department started a chaplaincy program in 2009. The program is similar to the program for city and county law enforcement officers and uses the same personnel, Paul McClough and Woody Glanzer, as pastors.

"They attend all of our training and also attend all business meetings and any functions we have,'' Calvin said. "Pastor Paul responded to his first fire call on April 3 and it was a learning experience for him and also for our incident commanders. It was very helpful because we have individuals that needed assistance and that was one task that we'd hand off to our chaplains and the program worked very well.''

Average response time for firefighters out the station door rose to 4 minutes 35 seconds from 4 minutes 11 seconds in 2008. Average call time was 41 minutes, up from 31 in 2008.

The department had an average of 9 firefighters on scene in 2009.

"Operationally, I don't think our numbers were affected a whole lot,'' said Calvin. "The number of firefighters on scene is a very important number to look at and that decreased by 1 person from 2008 to 2009.''

Estimated dollar loss was $417,200 in 2009 compared with the five-year high of nearly $1.4 million in 2007. The low was $15,000 in 2005.

The department had five calls in which the dollar loss was $10,000 or more. The largest was a house fire on March 8 at 2421 Williams Parkway S.W., with a loss of $225,000. Mutual aid was provided by the Raymond Fire Department and Pennock Fire Department. Four other calls ranged from $10,000 to $70,000.

The department logged 5,255 firefighting hours in 2009, a five-year low. The report said 2005 and 2007 were tied with 6,582 hours each, a five-year high.

Besides city calls, the department responded to two calls in Dovre Township and seven calls in Willmar Township. Both townships buy fire protection services from Willmar and most calls were the result of motor vehicle crashes.

Calvin said the fire station sports a new motivational mural with the words "committed to excellence.''

"We see that every time we come into the station,'' he said. In addition, Engine Co. 7, Engine Co. 8 and Ladder Co. 9 have individual murals.

Calvin said the Insurance Services Office of Chicago, which rates cities' fire-suppression capabilities, raised Willmar's rating from Class 4 to Class 3. He said Willmar received 74.27 percent out of 100 percent possible points.

Calvin said only 33 Minnesota cities hold Class 3. There are no cities with a Class 1 or 2. Calvin said Willmar rates the same as Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth and Rochester, which have full-time fire departments.

"We're very pleased with that,'' he said.