Firefighters set record pace amid busy summer

By Jason Hawk -

The wail of sirens has grown familiar in the past month as Amherst firefighters say they are on pace for a record year.

Emergency runs are up by a whopping 100 over this time in 2015, said assistant fire chief Jim Wilhelm. A busy June saw 73 calls, “which is basically unheard of,” he said — pushing Amherst past 340 calls for the year already.

Let’s put that in perspective: Amherst firefighters typically rush out to between 400 and 500 incidents each year, including structure blazes, car crashes, and grass fires.

A big part of the bulk, though, is in false alarms or assistance in medical calls such as heart attacks, strokes, and falls.

This year, car crashes are up. Distracted driving has been a problem. And heroin overdoses have contributed to call volume, too, said fire chief Greg Knoll.

“(Crashes) are up, but why? I don’t have a definite reason,” he said. “I guess people are busier, it’s a faster-paced world, and things are happening more often.”

Plus, cell phones are everywhere now and residents are far more likely than in the past to use them to call firefighters from the scene of an incident, which drives up calls.

That’s put Amherst on track to easily pass 2004, which had 546 calls, and holds the busiest-year record for the time being.

Wilhelm said he anticipates hitting a record 600 calls by Dec. 31 if the pace doesn’t slow. “It could shut off. I’ve seen it in my years where we’ll have 14 or 15 fires in a week, then you have just one for weeks,” he said. “It’s unpredictable.”

The past few weeks have been frenzied. Firefighters have dealt with several motorcycle crashes. A chemical truck rolled and spilled acid on the Ohio Turnpike. Grass fires and open burning have popped up.

One of the most harrowing calls came June 30 when a 12-year-old girl was severely injured in a 30-foot jump into the former quarry between Amherst and South Amherst.

“She was convulsing,” Wilhelm recalled of the girl, who was rescued by rope and dive team specialists, hauled up from the waters in a basket and choppered to MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland. “She had a knot on her head the size of a baseball.”

The incident came during a party by teenagers in an area along Quarry Road clearly marked by “no trespassing” signs. Wilhelm said it was the same exact spot where a year ago four Amherst divers were part of a training exercise.

A mobile home blaze kept firefighters busy the next day. Wilhelm said the front porch caught fire and moved into the structure’s thin, pocketed roof — and once flames reach there, “it’s like a blowtorch,” he said.

No one was hurt but the home was a loss.

Amherst firefighters have also provided mutual aid on a couple of occasions to our neighbors to the north as Lorain deals with mass layoffs. The city, with a population of 63,700, is trying to cope with a $3.6 million shortage and now has fewer than 50 firefighters.

More than 20 were let go over the July 4 holiday weekend, leaving just one of Lorain’s four stations open July 2. On the Fourth, manpower was again critically low and Amherst sent aid to douse flames at a West Erie Street duplex (Vermilion, Elyria, and Sheffield Village firefighters also responded).

Both Wilhelm and Knoll said Lorain’s woes haven’t put an undue burden on Amherst firefighters. “Happy to help,” our workers told Lorain brethren on Twitter after the fire.

Amherst usually provides mutual aid to Lorain three to four times a year, the assistant chief said.

Lorain returns the favor in kind but that’s unlikely to continue unless the city’s layoffs are reversed, “and that’s understandable,” Wilhelm said.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.

By Jason Hawk