Rochelle Fire saw another record in total emergency calls in 2023

2,674 EMS calls, 455 fire calls: ‘I anticipate the numbers will continue to rise’

By Jeff Helfrich, Managing Editor
Posted 2/27/24

The Rochelle Fire Department saw another record in total emergency call numbers in 2023. Firefighter/paramedics responded to 2,674 EMS calls and 455 fire calls for a total of 3,129. 

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Rochelle Fire saw another record in total emergency calls in 2023

2,674 EMS calls, 455 fire calls: ‘I anticipate the numbers will continue to rise’


ROCHELLE — The Rochelle Fire Department saw another record in total emergency call numbers in 2023. Firefighter/paramedics responded to 2,674 EMS calls and 455 fire calls for a total of 3,129. 

In 2022, Rochelle Fire reached the 3,000-call mark for the first time in its history, going on 3,028 total calls including 2,613 ambulance calls and 415 fire calls. Both of those metrics increased from 2021, with 2,207 EMS calls and 316 fire calls seen that year. The department has seen calls rise for the past 20 years with the exception of one year, when it stopped doing transfers for Rochelle Community Hospital. 

“It's not a huge spike, but we haven't seen huge spikes,” RFD Chief Dave Sawlsville said. “It just creeps up every year. That's what was monumental in 2022, as we broke the 3,000 mark. Which had never happened before. We were curious to see if it was going to be a spike and go back down or if it was just going to keep rising. I know people were wondering if this was a pandemic spike in recent years, but it's not showing that. It's the normal growth that it does every year. For a while, fire calls were on their way down, but they're on their way up again too.”

Sawlsville said he’s unsure why fire calls rose last year, but said it could be due to people cooking at home more versus going out to eat. The number-one cause of residential fires is cooking. The RFD chief said EMS vs. fire calls usually are at about an 80-20 split proportionally. 

As far as EMS calls rising, Sawlsville attributed that to less access to care for those that are ill in the community with immediate physician appointments being harder to schedule. Emergency room numbers have risen along with EMS call numbers, he said. 

“I think it's just a culture that's developed,” Sawlsville said, “Back in the 1970s and 1980s, people had family doctors that were available to them 24 hours a day seven days a week. Now it's tough to even get an appointment with your primary care provider in a short time frame. For urgent stuff like fevers and cuts, now it's just the culture. They show up in the emergency room. Some people aren't comfortable driving or able to. If you don't have access to primary healthcare, the ER becomes primary healthcare. It's a nationwide trend that isn't going to change anytime soon. I anticipate the numbers will continue to rise. There's plenty of healthcare need, but not enough staffing. If you talk to police officers, firefighters or emergency room personnel, staffing is always the number-one challenge.”

RFD got some reinforcements this past year to deal with rising call numbers. The Rochelle City Council approved a new contract with the firefighters’ union to hire six more firefighter/paramedics by 2026, and three have been hired already. RFD’s staffing each shift has moved to five from four and will move from five to six when the additional three firefighter/paramedics are hired.

Along with higher call numbers and overlapping calls bringing about the expansion, fire departments locally and nationwide have seen shortages of paid on-call and volunteer fighters in recent years, which RFD relies on to aid with overlapping calls and fires. Sawlsville said he feels more comfortable when seeing large call numbers since the staffing expansion. 

“Our ability to get the second and third ambulances out the door kept us up at night,” Sawlsville said. “This year we went from four to five. Now we can get that second ambulance out on a very timely basis. Now when we get a fire call we have enough staffing to take the fire engine and ambulance in case there's an ambulance call during the fire. And it lends itself better to simultaneous ambulance calls and we can improve our response times. But sometimes we get three calls at the same time, so we still have to call out for help. But we're in a much better place. It's going well and I'm happy with it.”

Sawlsville said that before the most recent staffing expansion, RFD was “a little behind the curve” with addressing staffing to deal with larger call numbers. He believes the planned expansion to six and a dedicated group of paid on-call firefighter/paramedics will have the department “in good shape” for years to come.

RFD also has a partnership with the Ogle-Lee Fire Protection District and its stations of Hillcrest, Flagg Center, Steward and Creston, which also helps to supplement its response. RFD automatically responds to calls in those town areas along with personnel from their local stations and the OLFPD provides automatic aid to RFD for larger incidents like fires. 

“Our partnership with Ogle-Lee helps out greatly with dealing with larger call numbers,” Sawlsville said. “It recently showed itself again. We had an abandoned house fire in Creston. We weren't real aggressive because it was abandoned, it was the middle of the night and cold. We still had three engines and all the staffing we could've hoped for. That partnership is unique. There aren't very many towns of 9,000 people that can get four engines at a structure fire in 10 minutes. And we're on the same radio frequency and we train together.”

In the coming weeks, RFD will finish its dorm remodel that will provide more privacy for firefighters and the addition of two showers. The change was brought about by RFD having more female firefighters than it ever has and studies showing that showering after a fire is an important part of firefighters’ health after exposure to toxins in smoke that can be absorbed through the skin.

Sawlsville said he also expects the delivery of a new ambulance in 2024, which will replace one of the department’s ambulances that is a 2000 model and has seen issues with parts availability. In 2023, RFD and the OLFPD cut the ribbon on their new fire training facility, which has saved time with training. 

Increased staffing has allowed RFD to rotate its crews to prevent burnout.

“Everybody doesn't have to go on every single call,” Sawlsville said. “And it allows folks to get back to what they were hired for. When staffing is tight, you have to wear a lot of hats and ask people to do things they weren't necessarily hired for. And they stepped up. We've been very successful at getting grants. Our grant writer had to be a frontline firefighter. And he was happy to do it. With increased staffing, we can have frontline firefighters get back to doing frontline firefighter work and the things they were hired for and came here to do. That's been a big relief too.”