By Adam Klinker
Calls for service continue to go up and response times are still going down for the Ralston Volunteer Fire Department.
RVFD's annual report, released last week, shows an 18 percent increase in calls from 788 a year ago to 932 between the department's Nov. 1, 2010 to Oct. 31, 2011 statistical year.
And with the department's easing of residency restrictions, RVFD Chief Kyle Ienn said the 76 members who were in on at least one call for the year helped drop the average response time to a service call to six minutes, an improvement from last year's time of six minutes, 27 seconds.
"More calls and shorter response times aren't often things that go hand-in-hand," Ienn said. "But with 76 members helping out, it has been a case where we get a group-effort making a difference."
The 76-member department is a 13-member bump over last year's RVFD, more evidence that the department's work to recruit and retain more members and to ease its residency restrictions are all having an effect on the department size.
In 2009, the squad doubled in size to more than 50 members when Ienn and RVFD — through a four-year grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency — was able to put together a recruitment and retention program focusing on bringing in more firefighters and emergency medical personnel from around the area.
Residency restrictions lifted, those new members living outside a proscribed area had to meet a 40-hour standby requirement on a monthly basis to retain membership with RVFD — meaning they had to log at least 40 hours at the RVFD station.
In 2010, RVFD membership climbed to 63 and in 2011, the department is bigger than it has ever been at 76 members.
"It's been huge for us," Ienn said. "But we've seen this as a national trend. Call volume is up, volunteers are down. We had the foresight to get out ahead of that and what we've seen is people are willing to serve. They see this as a very worthwhile opportunity and it's helped us tremendously."
Earlier this year, RVFD received another four-year grant from FEMA to continue the program and Ienn said the department will continue to build its ranks.
While response times and membership are going in the right direction, Ienn said one alarming statistic for the department is the number of large-scale structure fires to which RVFD responded this year.
That figure doubled from seven a year ago to 14 this statistical year, including a pair of major fires at apartment complexes at Ponderosa Pines, 72nd and Harrison streets in April, and at Orleans Square, 84th and L streets in September.
RVFD also responded to two apartment fires in La Vista, first at the Alpine Village Apartments at 84th and Harrison streets last December and again this spring at Shadow Ridge near 84th and Granville Parkway.
The two La Vista fires and the Ponderosa Pines fire, along with a rash of similar blazes in Omaha, were all caused as a result of carelessly disposed cigarettes, something over which Ienn and other area fire chiefs have gone on the offensive.
High winds also helped fan those fires into much more destructive events.
Last week, Ienn filmed a public service announcement for the Metro Omaha Tobacco Action Coalition to explain the added fire danger accompanying the smoking habit.
"The structure fires we saw, especially the ones caused by a still-lit cigarette on a dry wood deck are moving faster, burning hotter," Ienn said. "It's concerning and it's something we need to publicize.
"We can go through all the training and readiness for a fire like that, but sooner or later, if they keep coming, your luck runs out and a resident or one of my guys gets hurt."
That RVFD has gone through another year without serious injury or death is something Ienn always considers at the top of his list when giving the annual report.
"Not every fire chief around the country can say everyone came home," he said. "We lose 100 firefighters a year nationwide. We feel very fortunate to say everyone came home in Ralston."
Up ahead for the department, Ienn said RVFD has already begun the process of evaluating emergency response capabilities at the sports and events center currently under construction at 72nd and Q streets.
The department has also measured its new responsibilities with an eight-building apartment complex just north of the arena.
"We're plunging ahead," Ienn said. "We're getting ourselves ready for a new situation in Ralston. We know the arena has the potential to increase calls, but that's why we're staying ready."
In accepting the RVFD report, Ralston Mayor Don Groesser and the Ralston City Council thanked the department for its continued service.
"We're blessed in Ralston to have the fire department we do," Groesser said. "We thank everyone on the department for their hard work."