Look around: Bend is back and busy.
Locals and visitors alike are jamming outside, recreating, driving their cars, shopping, exercising and generally joining together outside their homes after more than a year of relative isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
All this activity lately has led to a historic surge in emergency calls at the city’s 116-year-old municipal fire department.
Last month was Bend Fire & Rescue’s busiest on record in terms of call volume.
In June, the fire department responded to 1,118 calls, of which 885 were medical in nature, an increase of nearly 10% over May.
It’s noteworthy because June isn’t typically as busy as July and August, said Bend Fire & Rescue Chief Todd Riley.
“I hope June’s not foreshadowing what the rest of this summer’s going to look like,” Riley said. “We are doing as much as we can with the people we have.”
When the town shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020, the fire department saw calls slow to a trickle, with less fire activity and fewer people needing to go, or wanting to go, to the hospital.
But that lull lasted only a few months before fire and medical calls sprung back to historical averages. And with recent summertime activity, the department has been stretched, Riley said.
“What’s responsible for the increase in call volume?” Riley asked. “I think people are ready to get out after a year and a half locked down. And don’t forget that in that time that everybody was locked down, Bend still grew.”
With an annual budget of $26 million, Bend Fire & Rescue employs 130 people, 91 of whom are firefighter-paramedics, across seven stations. Through a unique arrangement, its firefighters serve some residents outside the city living in Deschutes County Rural Fire Protection District 2.
Riley doesn’t see the trend stopping after wildfire season ends. Call volume in the past 12 months also rose by about 10% above the previous year.
The agency has put in for a possible three-year grant to fund its next big need: staffing an engine based out of the Pilot Butte substation, which would require nine new firefighter-paramedic positions. Currently, the Pilot Butte station, the agency’s newest, is staffed with only an ambulance.
“Another resource would help with the call volume we’re experiencing now, but we can’t just put an engine there because we don’t have funding in place. Our funding is what it is,” Riley said.
The agency’s current tax levy is scheduled to run out in 2024. Riley expects to start a public campaign to reach voters in fall 2023.
Riley foresees further staffing challenges associated with this wildfire season, which typically starts in late July but this year is considered having already begun. The agency has agreements to share equipment and personnel with others in need.
Several Bend employees are currently serving in command roles at the Grandview Fire northeast of Sisters.
“I’m currently knocking on wood,” Riley said. “History does tend to repeat itself.”