COLUMBUS – Columbus Fire and Rescue Assistant Chief Duane Hughes spoke to the Columbus Rotary Club Feb. 21 about the history of the department and its current call volume, which is dominated by medical calls.

Hughes has been with the department since 1995. He was chief of training from 2011-16, and in May 2016 he became assistant chief.

“CFR was established in 1840,” he said. “Prior to that the only fire protection that you had was what you paid to your insurance company. If you paid your premium, you got fire protection. There were some private companies that freelanced, and after a little negotiating you would decide how much you want to pay them to put your fire out. Back in those days there was one important object in every homeowner’s possession, and that was your bed. A bed cost around three years’ salary. When you talked to the people who came to put your fire out, the only think you wanted them to do was get your bed out. The beds were constructed so they could be disassembled with keys. The firefighters back in those days had those keys to show their expertise. If they had those keys, they were the best firefighters around.”

Things have changed, Hughes said.

“We have five fire stations located around the city,” he said. “We are presently building a new one, Fire Station 4, on Airline Road. It’s going to take the place of an old station by Fairview. That station was built in the 1960s and it no longer can accommodate the size of the fire trucks. Because of the role we have in the community, trucks have increased in size. Not only do we fight fires, we do medical response, rope rescue, hazmat, confined space rescue, structural collapse, overland search and rescue, swift water search and rescue, dive rescue, and we’d be here all day if I told you all the responsibilities we have.”

The CFR became internationally accredited in 2014.

“We are the only internationally accredited fire department in the state, and one of the few in the Southeast,” he said. “To put that into perspective, out of the 30,000 career fire departments in the country, just around 200 are internationally accredited. That accreditation allows us to review all the processes and procedures with international standards. In those standards, fire chiefs from around the world come together and say this is the way a certain procedure could be done. Those departments came up with a list of 150 core competencies that a fire department should perform to that expectation level. Out of that 150 we measure up to 149. We missed one because we don’t have a helicopter.”

The instance of fire calls has fallen over the years, he said.

“At the beginning of my career, in 1995, we averaged three fire calls a week,” Hughes said. “Those were structure fires, and many were at the old Morningside Apartments, if you remember those. Now the department averages three structural fire calls a month. What we do now mainly is emergency medical response. As you know, we respond to every call an ambulance is dispatched on.

“Before international accreditation, the department only responded on five types of life-threatening calls,” he said. “What that produced was a burden on the 911 dispatcher. They listened to that call, determined whether it met one of those five criteria, and then decided whether to dispatch the fire department or not. When the international accreditation team came in, they made a point that if someone has a broken arm that doesn’t meet one of the dispatch criteria and so they don’t get any medical response from us. That’s not acceptable. Now anytime an ambulance is dispatched you get a fire department response.

“As I said, there are five fire stations around the city,” he said. “The average response time is two minutes from the time we get that call. The average response time for an ambulance is eight minutes, but keep in mind that they only have two dispatch locations for all of Lowndes County. We can be at your home inside of two minutes providing basic life support.

“One of the problems that that created was the stress on the fire trucks,” he said. “These trucks cost from $500,000 up. They are not designed for stop-and-go runs. They are designed to go to a fire, sit there for three or four hours and go back to the station. These emergency calls we are running on put an enormous strain on the trucks. They were needing mechanical repairs just about every other week. With the help of Mayor Robert Smith, we decided with a smaller SUV we could still respond and take the burden off the fire trucks. We introduced MED-1 last year, and it responds to all life-threatening emergency calls. Our fire trucks still respond, but now each one of our trucks has dropped medical call volume by about 500 calls per year.

“We’re not stopping there,” he said. “As of Oct. 1, we will introduce a second truck that will be in East Columbus. We are looking to reduce that volume by a further 500 calls. Before the international accreditation, we averaged about 1,700 calls a year. Now we run around 5,000 calls a year, with about 70 percent of those being medical in nature.”

All 72 CFR members are certified emergency medical technicians, he said. He estimated that 70 percent of the calls the department responds to are medical in nature.

CFR rolls out on an average of three hazmat calls monthly, he said.

CFR is also part of a regional response team that covers 10 counties in the event of a natural disaster.