Looming Bethel alcohol sales push need for bigger fire department

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The Bethel Fire Dept. is asking the city to fund two extra positions after seeing a surge in alcohol-related calls. The department is straining to respond to the influx, and with legal alcohol sales coming to Bethel, it expects those numbers to rise.

Since Bethel went wet in 2009, the number of alcohol-related calls has increased 113 percent. Overall call volume has also climbed. Since 2014, over half the department’s calls have been related to alcohol.

Despite the increase, the Bethel Fire Dept. has stayed at early-1990’s staffing levels of six fire fighters. It also has more than 30 volunteers.

Meanwhile Bethel’s population has been growing. According to the U.S. census, in 1990 Bethel had over 4,500 people. A decade later, that number topped 6,000.

“We’re currently working with the absolute minimum to handle the volume of calls that we’ve got,” said Fire Chief Bill Howell.

The National Fire Protection Association mandates at least three fire fighters per engine responding to a fire. Howell says the department works hard to have two staff and one volunteer per truck. Usually one fire fighter is on duty at a time. The second fire fighter and volunteer often meet the truck at the scene.

In addition, the crew regularly assists the short-staffed police department. There’s no janitorial or administrative help. And Howell says overtime runs high.

“When fire fighters have to work 48 and 72 hours in a row for people taking vacations and having to constantly go on call on their days off to help cover staffing needs, I think it’s a pretty safe assessment that they’re being taxed further than what they should,” Howell said.

Despite the difficulties, Howell says morale is good. He says the staff is mostly new and young, so they may be more resilient. But to prevent burnout and to respond to rising calls, Howell is asking the city to fund two more staff positions.

“We feel there’s a strong possibility that a package store in Bethel could increase our call volume,” he said, “and we’d like to up-staff in anticipation of that.”

Howell says the city could fund the positions with savings from reduced overtime and tax revenue from future alcohol sales. The department has already been recruiting.

“We have several qualified applicants already on deck. We’re ready to go as soon as we can get approval from the [city] manager and council,” Howell said.

At Tuesday’s city council meeting, the Public Safety and Transportation Commission recommended the council fund the positions. The council will address the matter at a later date.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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