This story has been updated to include corrected information regarding Charleston EMS calls to Mattoon.
CHARLESTON -- It is nothing new to the Charleston Fire Department that calls, specifically medical calls, are going up. For several years now, medical calls in the city have gone up.
But last year saw a significant spike in calls, and it was not because of the recently shuttered Mattoon ambulance services.
Even with a notable dip in fire calls for 2018, the total amount of calls in the city grew from 4794 in 2017 to 5268 in 2018.
Medical calls boom
This increase in the call volumes for the year are directly attributed to the emergency medical service calls. While fire calls dropped from 746 to 680 year to year, EMS calls reached 4,588, an increase of 540 from the previous year.
Charleston firefighters anticipate 100 to 200 more a year, but this year made for a quick jump in medical calls.
Charleston Fire Chief Steve Bennett said a number of factors contributed to the increase, one of which included a growing elderly population in the city.
Bennett noted, though, that the number of calls was surprisingly high. He said they regularly ensure they have a capable staff to handle the load, mentioning the addition of a few new firefighters in recent years.
Mattoon ambulance issue's part in increase
Among the list of factors that play into the spike, the loss of the Mattoon Fire Department ambulances was not one of them, a least not a major one.
As previously reported in the JG-TC, the Mattoon Fire Department's ambulance service was shuttered on July 25.
Despite this, Bennett said it did not make as big an impact as one might think on Charleston's call volumes.
In the first couple of months, Bennett said they were called out to Mattoon to transport, but the ambulance services in Mattoon added more ambulances to their existing fleets. The private services "stepped up," he said.
Last year, Charleston firefighters were called to Mattoon for an EMS-related matter 36 times, 19 of which they were disregarded en route. Bennett noted many of these calls were at the beginning of the transition.
Though, in 2017, the number was 14 and, in the five years preceding, Charleston firefighters were not called more than four times in a year.
Without the Mattoon Fire Department's service, it does leave the county in a more vulnerable position, though. Bennett said there are less ambulances in the county to go on calls.
What are the EMS calls?
Of the medical emergency calls Charleston firefighters are running into, many of them were the same in 2018, but like the year before, psychiatric calls are making up a more significant amount of the calls throughout the year.
Last year, psychiatric-type calls, which are predominantly suicide threats or attempts, accounted for the one of the highest number of calls Charleston firefighters responded to, only seconded by falling-type calls.
As previously reported, this was not really the case a few years ago, but that has changed.
Bennett said mental health is becoming a bigger issue not only in the city or in the county, but also at the national level.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide has become a leading cause of death in the US with suicide rates increasing in nearly every state from 1999 through 2016.
This was not only due to mental illness either, according to the CDC.
They say suicide is rarely caused by any single factor. In fact, many people who die by suicide are not known to have a diagnosed mental health condition at the time of death, according to the CDC.
Other top calls included chest pain and breathing problems as in past years.
Heroin overdoses rising
Heroin is another national issue that has shown its face in the community.
While not the most common call for Charleston, it is certainly growing. City firefighters responded to 42 heroin overdose calls last year. The city has only been able to track these numbers for a couple of years, but Bennett said the problem has grown rapidly, even within a year.
Not only that, it is becoming more severe. Bennett said the effects have been much worse because some of the stuff is getting laced with stronger drugs. In many of these cases, they are unresponsive and barely breathing when firefighters arrive.
Notably, heroin overdoses were an issue in the front half of the year but not the latter. Bennett did not know why, but was sure of one thing:
"If (the firefighters) weren't there, they'd be dead."
Major fires topped first part of 2018
Fire calls did not make up a big part of their calls, but the fires they faced were destructive. Charleston had a string of notable structure fires in the area in the earlier part of the year. Most notably, the Mother's Bar, a longstanding establishment in the area, was consumed by a fire allegedly started by 29-year-old Charleston resident Brian T. Griffin, who was arrested for aggravated arson.
Bennett said he was proud of their efforts to remove occupants that lived in the apartments above and keep the fire contained to one building, which was a concern at the time.
He said the radiating heat coming off the fire concerned firefighters that it would jump to adjacent buildings.
"The guys did a tremendous job," Bennett said.
It was one of the biggest fires the city fire department had faced in recent years. Since, the building has been demolished.
Other than Mother's, several homes had caught fire in a relatively short span of time.