By Miles Maguire
A sharp jump in the number of structure fires, many more calls to help citizens who had fallen and a delay in response times are some of the ways that the pandemic affected the Oshkosh Fire Department last year.
The department’s newly issued annual report shows that structure fires increased by 50% year over year, from 40 in 2019 to 60 in 2020. In some parts of the country, a rise in fires has been linked to more incidents of arson, but Chief Mike Stanley said Oshkosh has not seen a big increase in suspicious fires.
Instead he thinks that what happened here was a result of more people spending more time at home because of the pandemic.
“The data is going to be so skewed in so many ways in 2020 because of COVID,” Stanley said. “Everyone was on lockdown–and kids were at home during the day, burning pizza in the oven while mom and dad were at work.”
COVID prompted other changes in everyday behavior that could have led to fires, Stanley added, although he noted that his comments were based mostly on anecdotal information rather than a detailed analysis of data.
Stanley said it is likely that residents were putting added stress on their electrical wiring by running more appliances and devices while they were home. Zoom calls and virtual meetings may have caused distractions from unattended cooking that may have resulted in fires, Stanley said.
In recent years the department has put great emphasis on preventing falls, which have been the leading cause for emergency responses.
In 2020 the department responded to 1,583 falls, an increase of more than 100 incidents compared to 2019.
Residents older than 60 accounted for 84% of these calls last year, and Stanley said part of the reason for the higher number of cases may simply be that the population continues to age as a “silver tsunami” hits Oshkosh as well as the rest of the country.
But he thinks that the pandemic may have played a role as well by keeping more older residents in their homes, away from routine medical appointments and exercise opportunities.
“It was really a compounding effect,” he said. “It was the aging population that was hit the hardest. The best things they need to do to prevent falls and keep themselves healthy–they had pretty limited options.”
Throughout 2020 the department struggled to meet its goal of responding to emergencies in six minutes or less. Last fall it was only meeting this goal around 70% of the time.
Here again Stanley said the pandemic played a big role. One factor was that COVID led to an increase in calls, and in many cases firefighters were taking extra time to don personal protective equipment before they responded.
He also noted that population growth and development mean that the department has greater territory to cover.
Despite the challenges of last year, Stanley pointed to several notable achievements for the department. These included increasing staff, adding a training tower and putting two new fire engines into service.
“We’re really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish and still be able to move forward and do some great things,” Stanley said.