CHICAGO — Think of the Chicago Fire Department and two things most likely come to mind: Fighting fires and responding to medical emergencies.

But increasingly, it’s another type of call that’s dominating the department’s day.

Take the Smith family on the city’s South Side. Three days a week, the family calls 911.

Thankfully, not for a medical emergency but so Chicago firefighters can carry Renee Smith out of her house for a dialysis appointment.

She has battled health problems for years and after a battle with COVID-19 is no longer able to walk.

“Glad to have the fire department,” Renee’s sister tells WGN Investigates. “I’m just a little woman so I can’t get her down [the stairs] by myself.”

The family is not alone.

Last year, the department responded to 41,539 “civilian assist” calls. That’s up 69% from 24,565 in 2019, according to fire department data.

A deeper dive shows a total of 14 locations called for “non-emergency” assistance more than 200 last times year. Of those, six called more than 300 times – or nearly once a day.

By comparison, there were 1,094 structure fires last year, according to the department.

Firefighters take seriously their slogan: “We’re there when you need us.”

But the explosion in “civilian assist” calls and their drain on resources is getting new attention.

“We’re like problem solvers for everything,” said Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 spokesman Patrick Quane. “If you have a problem and don’t have a solution – call the fire department.”

It’s a fine line for the fire department: Answering the call while still having the time to answer all the other calls that dominate their day.

Some suburban fire departments allow for a limited number of free assists but then start charging residents. There are no plans to begin billing residents in Chicago.

But legislation, backed by Local 2, was introduced earlier this year in the Illinois General Assembly to allow the city to charge nursing homes and other facilities for “lift-assist” services. The bill has not yet been called for a vote.

A fire department spokesman did not respond to our interview requests.

Though, in an email, he said the city launched a pilot program that seeks to connect people who need “lift-assists” and other non-emergency services with other city agencies that may be able to help, in an effort to reduce the strain on the department.