Evanston firemen cut holes in the ice covering the pond at Lovelace Park on Feb. 12 to practice ice rescues. In the photo above, the fireman in front played the role of a person who fell through the ice. The fireman behind went into the icy water to rescue him and is giving hand signals to a line of firefighters who are pulling them out.

Although the numbers are still being finalized, 2013 looks to have been the busiest on record for the Evanston Fire Department. If the opening weeks of 2014 are any indication, an even busier year is in store. Record cold temperatures have added to the usual list of ambulance and fire calls, said

Fire Chief Greg Klaiber said cold has effects both expected and unexpected.

Colder Temperatures, Increased Calls 

When the thermometer plunges below zero, emergency calls escalate. During a three-day period of bitter cold in early January, Chief Klaiber said, the department handled more than 50 calls each day – a big difference from the fewer than 25 calls the department receives on an average day.

Anticipating an escalation in the number of calls, Chief Klaiber increased staffing during the cold snap and “placed a third ambulance into service.” Ordinarily, the department has two ambulances fully staffed and ready to go. In addition, a five-person “rescue squad” was on call.

The rescue squad “looks like a fire engine, but it’s not,” said Chief Klaiber. It carries equipment, but no hoses and no water. Engines ordinarily carry 500 gallons of water. A rescue squad “has to be outside a while, so there has to be no fear of water freezing,” said the Chief. He also had “a Park District bus ready to go, kept warm at the service center,” he said. In an emergency, the bus would have been brought to the scene as a “warming center for [firefighters] or displaced residents.”

Streets and roads, snow-packed and icy in places, coupled with an anticipated increase in ambulance calls, led to the decision to activate the third ambulance. In order to “keep response times under four minutes,” said Chief Klaiber, the department divided the City into three sections rather than two.

Both the rescue squad and extra ambulance came into play when one ambulance got stuck in a snow bank. The department “had to call another ambulance to transport the patient, move the patient from the disabled ambulance to the arriving vehicle [which] completed the transport to the hospital,” said Chief Klaiber. The patient was fine. The rescue squad then extracted the ambulance from the snow bank and returned it to service.

Burst Pipes and Flooding

Ambulance calls, perhaps surprisingly, did not account for the increased call volume during the cold snaps, said Chief Klaiber. In fact, “it was pretty quiet around town,” he said. A few more falls and traffic accidents occurred, but “no significant change” in ambulance calls. Instead, what the department terms “details calls” increased markedly.

Such calls can result from the activation of a fire-alarm due to bitter cold. When water begins to flow from an automatic sprinkler system, it gets reported to an alarm company and then to the fire department. A fire-suppression team must report to the scene to find out the cause of the alarm.

On rare occasions, the cause is a fire, such as the Davis Street conflagration in January. A far more likely cause during bitter cold is a frozen sprinkler head popping off and flooding a home or business. “Subzero temperatures tax any system,” said Chief Klaiber.

As if to emphasize the point, while the RoundTable spoke with Chief Klaiber, a call came in for a burst pipe at a building on Church Street and Sherman Avenue.

Snow-Covered Hydrants Hamper Firefighters 

Fire hydrants do not freeze, though, said Chief Klaiber, because “water is not in the hydrant itself … [and] the water mains are deep enough underground.” To access water from a hydrant, firefighters “open a valve in a water main below the surface, and [only then does] water flow into a hydrant.”

Fire hydrants are often covered in snow in winter, and snow plows only add to this problem. “There are 1,300 fire hydrants in the City,” said Chief Klaiber. “We have to dig them all out.” The department routinely asks for help from residents because, should a major fire strike, time taken to dig a hydrant out from under three feet of snow could prove the difference between a fire limited to one room and a fire that destroys an entire building.

Sprinkler systems are either wet or dry, said the Chief. Generally. “[If] you know pipes are exposed to the elements, then it’s supposed to be a dry system,” said Chief Klaiber, citing parking garages as an example. Like fire hydrants, the pipes in dry systems do not contain water but are connected to a water main. Once activated, the main forces water throughout the entire system.

Initiatives for 2014 

While weather and the Davis Street fire dominated January’s fire department activities, they were not the only issues on Chief Klaiber’s mind as the calendar flipped to 2014. Several other initiatives, some long in the works and others brand new, are in the works.

The Fire Explorers program for area youth is now into its second year. “Three firefighters have taken this on [as] instructors,” said the Chief. Currently, they have about a dozen students, but they hope to bring in more with a scheduled open house. Students are primarily from ETHS, but not exclusively. The program has room for about 20 total explorers, he said.

The Skokie training tower, a joint project funded by both Skokie and Evanston, is ready. “We’re going to start using it extensively in the spring,” said Chief Klaiber. The tower allows for hands-on training, including joint training using both Evanston and Skokie departments.

Continual training, both in the classroom and using apparatus such as the fire tower, will always be a priority, said Chief Klaiber. Firefighters now come to the headquarters building on Lake Street for regular training. As a result, fire engines and fire trucks are at times lined up along Lake Street in front of the building, their engines left running to keep medicine and water on board from freezing.

“I have tried to come up with a solution,” said the Chief, such as broadcasting video training out to the firehouses from headquarters, but so far a solution has not been found.

Hiring Hampered by State Law

One initiative that has not proven successful has been Chief Klaiber’s conscious effort to hire more Evanston residents and minorities. The program “hasn’t been as successful as I’d like,” he said, in large part because of a new state law that “dictates the process and dictates how I can hire.”

The law requires candidates to be ranked according to a strict formula that begins with “150 multiple choice questions on one day [over] two hours,” said Chief Klaiber. The department has no discretion whatever regarding the test results. Candidates who do not score above a certain number are simply not eligible. No other factor comes into play until after a candidate has passed the written test.

“I think that’s wrong,” said the Chief. “I know at least 12 kids who are hamstrung. They have not done well on the written test.”

Chief Klaiber has been working with Senator Daniel Biss to change the law so that preference points can be applied before the test results and not after. Currently, preference points are awarded for veteran status, paramedic license and to Evanston residents – but not to minority status.

The result in Evanston, said Chief Klaiber, is that there are currently no black or Hispanic candidates on the Evanston hire list. And there is nothing he can do about it. “Every little scrap of discretion has been taken out of the hiring process,” he said. “It’s very frustrating for the Chief of a department to not have any discretion” as to who gets hired by that department, he said.

Minority hiring is particularly poignant for Chief Klaiber, a lifelong Evanston firefighter. He recalled a time when the department went nine full years without hiring a black firefighter. At that time, he said, when the City passed around a notice for employees to sign acknowledging the City’s adherence to affirmative action minority hiring policy, he and a few others refused to sign it. They took the matter to then-Alderman Joe Kent.

“The Chief wasn’t very happy with me at the time,” said Chief Klaiber.

But, he says, he firmly believed then and continues to believe now that “we serve this community, and those of us who serve should reflect the community.” While remaining sensitive to those on the current hire list, all of whom he feels are dedicated, fine candidates, Chief Klaiber said the current law prevents him from fulfilling his goal of hiring a department that reflects the whole of Evanston.