Seattle Fire Chief: Responses to daily encampment fires taxing already short staffed fire dept.

The Seattle Fire Department is on pace to break a record in its responses to homeless encampment fires and medical aid calls at the camps.

Last year, the department responded to 1,446 calls of encampment fires. That was nearly doubled from 2020’s total of 854.

From Jan. 1 to April 10 of this year, the department has responded to 478 encampment fires. In 2021 during the same time period, it was 327. The year before that, they responded to 168 encampment fires.

"Each day, we respond to three to five encampment fires," said Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins.

On the medical side, Scoggins said EMS units respond to anywhere from 30 to 35 medical aid calls in encampments every day. 

So far this year, there have been 3,102 EMS calls to encampments. The department is well on its way to eclipsing the total number of EMS calls in 2021, which was recorded at 11,230.

"So they keep us very busy," Scoggins said of the encampments. "But we respond to any and all calls that we get."

He said the department averages between 250 to 275 calls to 911 for service city-wide every day.  Encampment calls are now approaching 15% of the daily calls the department gets.

It’s taxing a fire department that is short-staffed. It’s operating with 9% fewer firefighters than has been budgeted and is actively recruiting for 90 firefighters.

When Mayor Bruce Harrell was asked about the increased number of encampment calls, he said he was satisfied that SFD was staffed to handle all the city’s 911 fire responses.

"I think they are, but we continue to look at the data on each area of the fire, what are response times are how much resources we are dedicating to it," Harrell said. 

It’s not just fires that have been taxing on the department, but also the increase in gun violence. It’s known as a ‘scene of violence’ response, where firefighters are dispatched to an incident until police arrive. Sometimes, the firefighters must don ballistic vests and helmets.

"We are tracking higher than last year by a significant number" said Scoggins.  "I think so far in the first quarter this year, we've responded to over a hundred scenes of violence. That’s higher than normal." 

At 53rd Street and 14th Avenue in Ballard, there have been several tent fires over the last two years. 

The city had given sidewalk campers in a two square block area 48 hours’ notice to remove their belongs because the camps were considered by the city to be a ‘safety hazard".

One fact that goes into an immediate camp removal are tent and propane fires and acts of violence, which neighbors say have happened.

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