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Although the Fire Department’s annual report has not yet been finalized, the RoundTable recently sat down with Fire Chief Greg Klaiber to get an informal report. Chief Klaiber, officially Chief of the Evanston Fire and Life Safety Services Department, gave an overview of the Department, a review of 2010, and looked ahead to what the community can expect from the department in 2011.

2010 Fire Calls and Response Time

“Preliminary numbers [show] we’ll have more than the 8,900 calls for 2010, so almost 9,000. And it appears it’s going to be the second most number of calls we’ve had in our history – 2008 was over 9,000,” said Chief Klaiber. “Our call volume has increased from about 6,000 per year to 9,000 over the last 20 years.” That translates to about 25 calls per day, or more than one call per hour.

“Typically what we see is about 60 to 65 percent of our call volume are Emergency Medical Services (EMS) calls or ambulance calls,” said Chief Klaiber, with the remaining calls [about 3,500] “broken down to fire calls, false alarm calls, actual structure fires, house fires, vehicle fires, rubbish fires, details such as elevator rescues, hazardous materials calls, technical rescue calls, dive responses, ice responses. … You know, so it fills out the rest of that list with all of what we do.”

Chief Klaiber continued, “Our average response time last year was 3 minutes and 30 seconds, and I think we’re going to be right on those numbers again for this year. We pride ourselves in getting to your home as quickly as we can. There’s plenty of evidence out there that indicates that after a certain period of time, a fire doubles in size every minute. Beyond four minutes, if you have a heart attack, your chance of survival decreases 10 percent per minute after that. It’s extremely important; we really take it seriously. … I think there are always going to be people we can’t save, but we do everything we can.”

The same applies to fire suppression, he said. “Our department really takes pride in being an offensive, attack-oriented fire department,” the chief explained. “Our guys get in there quickly and they try to save the property and the homes of people and their loved ones. … We try to protect as much as we can.” He said that not only does a fire itself cause damage, but also the act of putting it out. “There are certain things we have to do that people don’t understand,” he said. “We have to look for extensions. That requires holes in the ceiling, holes in the walls. Water causes damage, the smoke causes damage, but if we can get there and confine it quickly, we’re going to save the majority of the property.”

Locations and Equipment

Evanston has five fire stations located throughout the City, and each station houses a fire engine. Two stations, Station 2 at 702 Madison and Station 3 at 1105 Central, have an engine, a truck and an ambulance. Fire trucks are “the hook and ladder,” said Chief Klaiber – the long, swiveling truck. As the majority of calls are EMS, to “a lot of people, it doesn’t make sense … that [there are] two ambulances, five engines and two trucks. It seems more heavily weighted toward the suppression side. But you have to have that apparatus in suppression there to protect the community and property.” Chief Klaiber emphasized that “to supplement the EMS side of things,” the department has put advanced life support equipment on every fire engine and the trucks, as well as assigning two paramedics to each apparatus.

“What that means,” Chief Klaiber explained, “is they carry the medications, they carry Lifepaks [defibrillators], as well as all of the medical equipment that an ambulance carries.” As a result, he said, a fire engine is often the first to respond to an ambulance call simply because it is closer. “They’ll initiate care, and they’ll do everything an ambulance would do prior to the ambulance arrival,” Chief Klaiber said.

The department also pulls a third ambulance into play at times. “We have something that’s called the ‘jump company,’” the chief explained. “At station 3, we have… ambulance 23. But ambulance 23 is unmanned. …[if the two front line ambulances] are already out on calls [and] a third ambulance call comes in… the personnel assigned to engine 23… jump to ambulance 23 and take that call. The flaw in that system is that now that part of our community does not have their fire suppression vehicle in service. If something were to come in, in the meantime, then we’re getting an engine company from a more distant part of town to respond.”

Chief Klaiber admitted that, given the call volume, another frontline, on-duty ambulance is probably warranted. “The City commissioned a study in 2006 that said we needed – actually should have – a third ambulance in service,” he said, but finances just do not allow it right now. “We deal with reality, and we understand the situation that the City is in as well as the state and everyone else, so we’re not pounding on the table saying that this [is the] time to get us a third ambulance.

“We’ve balanced our ability to respond for EMS calls by supplying all our rigs with ALS [Advanced Life Support] equipment and for everyone hired after 1986 it’s been a job requirement to be a paramedic,” he said. “[In] other communities that’s not necessarily true. Maybe only half the department are paramedics in Skokie or the surrounding communities, but as long as I am chief, I’m going to keep it that way, because I think it’s a very important part of what we do.”

Another way Evanston protects the community with the equipment it has is through what is known as MABAS, the mutual aid box alarm system. If a call comes in requiring more resources than Evanston has available, the department issues a “box alarm” and Skokie, Wilmette, Winnetka and Northfield come to Evanston’s aid, “so we can still protect our community while a major incident is happening,” explained Chief Klaiber. Communities share resources, allowing them all to save money while staying protected.

The flip side is also true. “We all have this agreement: We’re all on each other’s box cards, so we’ll be called to Skokie or Wilmette or Highland Park or wherever and we just go,” said Chief Klaiber. “That leaves our community without that resource, without that piece of apparatus, as well as firefighters for X amount of time, but that’s the way it goes.”

More From 2010

Not all of the news in 2010 came from call volume, fires and rescues. A labor contract dispute resulted in “an impasse, and the City Manager [Wally Bobkiewicz] said, ‘Okay, that’s it. We can’t go on any longer with this. We’re going to lay off three firefighters.’ … It was the first time in the history of our department we had to [lay anyone off].” As a result, then- interim Chief Klaiber “had to come up with a redeployment plan for that period of time that the firefighters were laid off. I presented to the City Manager and the City Council eight different options for what that would look like. It was not a task I enjoyed.”

The result was that the department operated with one piece of apparatus out of service each shift, because, he said, “you can’t send a truck or an engine to a fire with only two people. It’s dangerous.”

Fortunately, the layoff did not last long. “We scheduled one last session in August, I think it was Aug. 20, before we went to arbitration,” said Chief Klaiber. “And Friday, Aug. 20, at 5 p.m. we came to an agreement. We hired the firefighters back the next day and then I was promoted to chief the week after that. … Things are a little more stable now than they were in the six months prior.”

A New Chief

When the City selected Greg Klaiber as its chief of Fire and Life Safety Services in August 2010, it chose one of its own. “I grew up in Evanston,” he said. “…Lincoln School, Nichols, Evanston High School, University of Illinois, then met my wife. We got married and lived in Evanston for a short period when I first started the job here. And then we bought our first house in Glenview, then bought a house in Arlington Heights. After about six or seven years of living outside of Evanston, we decided to move back into Evanston. We wanted to get our kids into Evanston schools and Evanston High School and for the benefits that all of us talk about. … we love this community, and [that’s] why we live here and why we wanted to raise our kids here.”

The Coming Year

Chief Klaiber has a crowded agenda of things he wants to accomplish for the department in 2011. “Our department isn’t quite as diverse as it should be,” he said. “Historically, and not just here in Evanston, the fire service doesn’t attract minority populations – black, Hispanic, women. We want to reach out into those communities and put this career up on their radar screen. … I attended a seminar with a couple of firefighters and human resources in Milwaukee last month [on] attracting and retaining diversity in the work shop in the fire service. It was specifically geared toward departments that want to do that, and it is something that we want to do.” He said, “Currently, out of 110 [employees] … we have five women, seven Hispanic or Latino and 11 African American firefighters.”

Diversity has long been a priority for Chief Klaiber, who, during his introductory speech when he was appointed chief, cited former chief Sanders Hicks as a major influence on his career. “We went a number of years in the ‘90s where no African Americans were hired. None. For a decade,” said Chief Klaiber. “It got to the point where each year, as a part of our evaluation, we were supposed to sign a statement that the City has an affirmative action program … in place, and one year I decided that I was just not going to sign it. And I stated why: I said it’s highly hypocritical of the City to expect me to sign that statement saying they have a program in place when I know the facts are that the City has not hired an African American firefighter in a decade.”

Another priority is community outreach. “We need to do a better job of informing our community of who we are and what we do,” the chief said. “Not only that, but actually offering programs for the community to participate in. …We’re very limited in what we do now … but I would like to start a fire explorer program or a cadet program for the youth of our community. One of the things I want to see is more interest among Evanston’s youth for having Fire Service – the Evanston Fire Service – as a career possibility.”

The outreach extends to adults. Chief Klaiber said he would like to see a citizen fire academy for adults who might attend two nights a month for three or four months “for basic training in what firefighters do” and community CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] and AED [automatic external defibrillator] classes.

For the department, he wants to increase its focus on injury prevention and fitness. “We’ve had a significant amount of significant injuries at a significant cost to the City over the last several years,” he explained.

New Technology

“Instead of handwritten reports we now carry our Panasonic Toughbooks and do all the reports on computer and will be able at some point soon to send them electronically to wherever they’re supposed to go,” he said. “Our billing service will be able to access those reports without us having to manually copy and print them and mail them to our billing service.”

“We also have remote access in all our fire engines and trucks [to] preplans,”
said Chief Klaiber. Preplans are building schematics and other data such that when a call comes in, firefighters “can see everything about that building that may be a danger – Is it a wood truss construction? Where’s the fire panel? … Where’s the closest hydrant? – so all these things come up while you’re en route.” When he was on a rig, Chief Klaiber said, “You would flip through note cards that guys would keep about buildings, or your memory.
So this is pretty cool.”