MATTOON -- The total number of emergency medical service calls handled by the Mattoon Fire Department dropped sharply in 2018 after its ambulance service ended on July 25.
Meanwhile, the department's total number of fire calls, which range from false alarms to structure fires, increased slightly in 2018 to the highest level in the last three years.
Figures provided by the Mattoon Fire Department showed that the total number of EMS calls had topped 2,000 in 2015-2017, but dropped to 1,435 in 2018. Fire Chief Tony Nichols said the EMS total by July 25, when the ambulance service ended, had topped the mid-year total for the previous years.
"We were on track for our highest year," Nichols said.
City officials set the July 25 end date after the City Council voted to eliminate the fire department's ambulance service as a cost-cutting measure. City officials have said that this service lost money and duplicated the work of private providers. Firefighters countered that their service generated needed city revenue and provided essential coverage for Mattoon.
The Mattoon Fire department transferred its advanced life support equipment from its ambulances to its rescue truck and two fire engines after July 25. Nichols said the department will continue to log EMS calls whenever it responds to motor vehicle collisions and whenever it provides backup for the two private ambulance services in Mattoon.
Nichols said the first two or three months without the fire department's ambulance service were "pretty rough" as private services adjusted to the change. He said the fire department provided backup on several occasions when private ambulances were running behind or not available during this transition.
Since then, Nichols said the fire department has only needed to provide backup service about three to five times per month from October to December. He said that no matter how many ambulances operate in Mattoon, there will always be busy times when backup is needed.
"I think they are doing a good job," Nichols said of the private providers -- Dunn's Ambulance and Mitchell-Jerdan Ambulance Service.
City Council member Rick Hall, who is the commissioner for public health and safety, said he is pleased overall with the performance of Dunn's and Mitchell-Jerdan. He said the two providers have adjusted their staff and equipment levels to handle the larger volume of EMS calls coming their way and the city's new ambulance performance standards.
"We have not had nearly the problems we did early on," Hall said. "It looks like they are on their way to adjusting like we always hoped they would."
Regarding fire calls, the department handled a total of 666 in 2018. This total was up slightly from 664 in 2017 and 625 in 2016. Nichols said the term "fire calls" broadly encompasses calls ranging from false alarms to structure fires, as well as fires involving cooking accidents, cars, rubbish, trash bins and many other situations.
The fire chief said even though the total number of fire calls increased slightly, the total dollar value of property loss to fires in Mattoon decreased from $566,000 in 2017 to $212,000 in 2018. The 2017 total includes the loss of the Xtreme Armor building at 3121 Marshall Ave.
Nichols said many of the structure fires in 2018 were "room and contents" fires in which the blaze was confined to a kitchen, bedroom or other space within the structure.