When a loved one is not breathing, when a teenager is trapped in a car or when a home is on fire in the middle of the night, the difference between rescue arriving within 5 minutes or within 10 minutes can seem like a lifetime.
Cornbelt Fire Department Chief John Koller, the Cornbelt volunteers and board know this.
Changes within the department to cut down response times began in 1996 when the district contracted a paramedic service that is stationed at the department to respond to calls 24/7.
“That level of service, advanced life support service, is the highest level you can get anywhere in the country,” Koller said. “And we’re proud of that. It’s one of our most important assets.”
With the fire department addition on Franklin Street that was built in 2016, Cornbelt was able to alleviate apparatus stacking issues, which sometimes made response times slower when one truck had to be pulled out to create a pathway for the right apparatus to respond to an emergency.
Cornbelt spent 2017 moving offices and creating a new entrance to the building.
Part of the renovation included creating bunk space on the upper level to house the paramedic and a fireman who will also be at the station to respond to calls 24/7.
Cornbelt spent the latter part of 2017 looking at call numbers. Serving nearly 17,000 residents in western Champaign County, the department fielded 1114 calls in 2017. In comparison, in 2015, the year with the second highest call rate, Cornbelt received 1044 calls.
Sixty-seven percent of the calls Cornbelt receives are medical calls.
Beginning in 2014, Cornbelt began to pay one volunteer firefighter an hourly wage to man the station during daytime hours. The firefighter was responsible for taking and responding to calls, upkeep of the station and the fire equipment.
With a firefighter at the station, response time was 5.5 minutes during the day.
At night, though, three volunteer firefighters were on-call to respond to any emergency that may arise.
Because the volunteers had to leave their home, drive to the station and then take the equipment out, response times at night were around 9 to 10 minutes.
Koller, who has worked for four different fire departments said, “That’s a very long time. I’ve been the one standing on the scene waiting for the department to show up and it seems like forever no matter what.”
With a firefighter on-site 24/7 since January 1, Koller said the response times on the 30 calls the department has received so far have been at 5.5 minutes.
“We look at each family in this community as our own and ask, “What would we want for our family? Do I want them there in 5 minutes or do I want them there in 9 minutes?”
Within the last year, Cornbelt has also seen an increase in calls that come when firefighters are already responding to another emergency.
Cornbelt will continue to have volunteers on-call to provide additional support for emergencies or cover the response to a second emergency.
Koller said by adding a firefighter at the station 24/7, Cornbelt is now “ahead of the curve.”
Talking to other fire chiefs throughout the United States with departments that serve a similar population, Koller said he considered all of the district’s options.
One option that was tabled was to hire three full-time firefighters. But, because the 50 volunteer firemen and women are so dedicated, Koller said that was really never an option in his mind.
He also said the district saves $95,000 by paying the volunteers an hourly wage for their time. He also said constituent taxes will not be raised and cuts will not have to be made within the department to fund the firefighter.
“It’s been years of being fiscally responsible,” Koller said. “We’re grateful for that. The first board, the first fire chief in 1953 started it that way. This is our citizens’ department and we are the caretakers of this and we’ve carried that along up to 2018.”
Koller also said that after implementing the 24/7 fire position on January 1, the district was back to planning again.
“It’s just like any other business,” Koller said. “If you’re not moving forward with it, you’re falling behind. In some businesses it means you’re going out of business and in our business it risks lives. And we won’t accept that. It matters too much to us.”
Each year the volunteers undergo 550 hours of training. When the weather is warm enough, the firefighters train outside, but during the winter months, they are in a meeting room at the station, which is standing room only.
Bids to renovate some of the old bays into an indoor training space will go out February 5.