Fire Chief Dave Miller stands in the department where he began as a volunteer firefighter and EMS technician 29 years ago. On his decision to apply for city administrator, “I want to do it for Sitka.” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

2016 was the busiest year ever for the Sitka Fire Department.

Fire Chief Dave Miller updated the Sitka Chamber of Commerce this week (2-22-16) on his department’s activities.

Miller told the chamber that firefighters responded to 1,438 calls last year — most of them for Emergency Medical Services. He didn’t have any firm answers on the increase, but he had some ideas.

If I was to just guess at it I’d say alcohol had a lot to do with it. A lot of our calls were alcohol-based calls last year. Drugs weren’t really a big thing — we had a few, but not a huge thing. The Police Department is doing a lot more in the drug thing, but we’re not picking those people up. If you talk to the hospitals, alcohol is a big issue too. And for whatever reason, last year it really peaked. And then the rest of the calls were sort of across the board. It was young people, old people, everyone in between. I can’t come up here and say “you should really start watching this” because it really wasn’t anything about that. About 80-percent of the calls nationally are EMS calls for fire departments. Fires are really slowing down. And for us they really slowed down last year. We only had one or two fires where we actually saw flame when we got there. So usually we do 8-10 fires a year. Last year it was nothing. There again, why? I’d like to think it’s either one of two things: Our public education with people is good. Either that or my good looks are just not allowing fires to happen. I’m not sure which it is, but I’ll throw it out there and leave it at that.

Miller said that his department has 8-and-a-half professional staff, and over 100 volunteers in four divisions: Fire, EMS, Search and Rescue, and Dive. He believes Sitka’s is one of the largest “combined” departments in the state, somewhere between Anchorage’s — which is 100-percent staffed by paid employees — and the all-volunteer departments of many small communities.

Although actual fires were down last year, Miller said that Sitka has experienced deadly fires in the past. He described entering the scene of a fatal fire as one of the most difficult parts of the firefighter’s job. He urged Sitkans to remain vigilant, to install smoke detectors in every room, and to change the batteries.

He also had this word of warning.

Things that scare me the most in my job: When I go to the store and see small, cheap heaters. Those ones that you plug in the wall that are about this big. We all have had them in our houses. They cause more fires than anything else you can throw out. Blankets fall on them, they tip over. They’re just not designed to do what you’re asking them to do. Get rid of ‘em. Carbon monoxide — that’s a huge thing, because you’ll die from it without even knowing you’re dead.

Miller said that the fire hall was happy to help residents with changing batteries in smoke detectors or carbon monoxide detectors — in fact, non-emergency calls round out the bulk of fire department activity. Miller said firefighters are usually willing to help people get into their cars if they’ve locked their keys inside, and they sometimes help open homes — but he cautioned Sitkans to use the fire department’s skills with discretion. “If we can’t open your door with a key,” he said, “we have a really big hammer.”

Note: Dave Miller and Sitka Utility Director Bryan Bertacchi are two of 8 semi-finalists for the job of Sitka municipal administrator, which will turn over in June when Mark Gorman steps down.