DULUTH — Every year, the Duluth Fire Department responds to more calls. Every year, a smaller percentage of them involve fires.
“It’s a cultural shift where people are utilizing 911 more and more,” said Duluth Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj. “Sometimes they don’t know who to call for help, and the fire department is kind of a catchall.”
In 2019, the department fielded a record 13,698 requests for service, 260 of which were for fires, according to data released Tuesday. While not all 911 calls result in the fire department getting dispatched, Krizaj said the department is often the best fit between, or alongside, a police or ambulance response. Medical emergencies, and many nonemergencies, made up the bulk of last year’s calls.
Krizaj, who was sworn in as chief in September, said call volume has nearly tripled since he joined the department in 1997. The city’s population has barely changed since then; Krizaj said he’s seen an increased willingness, and need, to call for emergency services.
“Oftentimes, it may not be an emergency, but this person needs help,” he said. “Sometimes we can solve that problem, sometimes we can steer them in the right direction.”
Overdoses, which spiked last year and killed at least 15 people in Duluth, were one of the reasons behind a 3% increase in calls last year. Krizaj also chalks it up to residents lacking access to health care — about one in five Duluthians lives below the poverty line, twice the state average — and a “shift in wanting help.”
The department is the third-busiest in the state by call volume (behind the Twin Cities) and has nearly 150 employees, Krizaj said.
The 260 fires the department responded to last year was the most since 2015. One of those attracted international attention — the destruction of the Adas Israel Synagogue.
Krizaj said fires of that memorable magnitude happen just every three to five years.
There have been no fire-caused deaths in Duluth since 2017.
In Superior, 52-year-old Daniel Dodge died at his home in a fire earlier this month. The cause remains under investigation.