Supporting Local Fire Protection: A Conversation with Chief Dean Smith

Vernonia citizens will have a chance to vote on two measures in the upcoming election that would support the Vernonia Rural Fire Protection District.  The Fire District has placed Measure 5-245, a ten year bond for the purchase of a new fire engine, and  Measure 5-246, a five year levy to fund a training officer for the district.  According to Vernonia Fire Chief Dean Smith, both Measures are vital for helping local fire fighters continue to provide quality service to the community.  The following is an excerpt from a recent conversation Vernonia’s Voice had with Chief Smith.

Vernonia’s Voice: Why are both these Measures so important for the Fire District? 

FireMeasures-ConversationDeanSmith-webChief Smith: The operating levy, Measure 5-264, is important because I’m the only paid responder we have.  I’m also paid to be an administrator.  The duties that are required within a fire district and the tasks that need to be managed are always increasing and so is the amount of training our volunteers are required to receive and stay  current on.  There is always something else that needs to be taken care of.

Our District is responding to a record number of  calls now and our volunteer levels have dropped to as low as I’ve ever seen them. We’re at a point where our district needs to have another body in here that can take some of these tasks that need to be managed.

What we need is a Training Captain that can be dedicated to oversight and look at all the aspects of our training program and make sure we’re covering and tracking all the certification for our volunteers and keeping their files up to date.  We need to make sure we’re meeting the needs and addressing the aspirations of our volunteers, so that we can see where they want to go and assist them in getting there.  It’s become imperative—we need another body here.  We can’t continue giving the level of service if we don’t.

Measure 5-245 is a bond for equipment.  We recently purchased a used engine from Banks for a heck of a deal.  The last bond we put out was in 2000 and it matured and was paid off in 2010.  In reality the District should have  immediately put out another bond.

VV: Why is it so important to have a paid Training Officer?

CS: We’ve used volunteers in that role for a long time.  The average time span that a volunteer lasts in that role is about three years.  And every training officer that we’ve had since I’ve been here, has not only stepped down from training, they’ve resigned from the department completely.  They get so burned out because there is so much extra work.  And the worst part is, the people we give the training responsibility to are usually some of our best volunteers and then we end up losing them.  They’re going to their regular jobs for forty hours a week and then they are volunteering here and then putting in all this extra work.

VV: Why is it hard for you to find volunteers?

CS: Volunteerism is way down across the board, not just in fire service.  It’s because society is always so busy. In addition to this levy for the Training Captain, we’re also applying for a grant for a Recruitment/Retaining Officer.    The Recruitment/Retaining Officer would be an advocate for the volunteers.  They would go out and find them, bring them in and get them what they need.

Volunteers are supposed to be able to finish and be certified as Firefighter I within a year to a year and a half.  We have volunteers who have been here for three years and still aren’t certified as Firefighter I.  It’s because our training schedule is so full, if a volunteer misses a particular piece of training, it can be a year before we get back around to that  training section for them to get signed off on it.  That can get very discouraging for our volunteers.

By having a dedicated Training Officer we can open up the drill schedule and be more flexible. We can create a more stable and sustainable training program to meet the personal needs of our volunteers.  If we can do that then hopefully we can grow our volunteer base.

If we get funding for both those positions I believe it will make a big difference.  I think it will help facilitate and speed up the process.  It keeps the volunteers interested and helps retain them.

VV: Why do you need to purchase more equipment?

CS: The National Fire Protection Agency( NFPA) recommendations make  it hard for small departments that can’t afford to meet them, regardless of the amount of safety or maintenance we put into a piece of equipment.  If we had an incident and ended up in court they are going to ask why we weren’t meeting recommended standards.  We have equipment that is out of date.  The recommendations state that our first out vehicle should not be any older than ten years, the reserve  vehicle can be ten more years and then another five years for a backup vehicle- so a total of twenty-five years. We just got rid of our forty year old rig, our tender/pumper is thirty-four years old and our first out vehicle is now fifteen years old.

Our aging apparatus not only lacks the horse power to go up hills, but it lacks  the safety features that are in today’s equipment.  With our purchase from Banks we were able to upgrade from a forty year old to a twenty year old.  It still has its share of issues that will require continual maintenance on our part.  That leaves us with our pumper tender, which is also an outdated rig that we’ve had to do some severe engine work on just to band aid it and keep it running.

The idea is to create a succession plan for our apparatus portion of the district, and we have to have that, and we’ve obviously gotten far beyond that.  We feel that by going out for the bond now, it puts us back where we need to be and consistently provide the proper coverage and meet the standards for our District.

VV: Why didn’t the District go out for another bond in 2010?

CS: We were still recovering from the flood and we chose to wait.  We waited because the City was trying to figure out how to pay to replace their sewer system.  We waited because the community needed to build a new school.  We waited because the  community needed to build a new health center and senior center.  We’ve consistently taken a backseat because we know the community is tight and we know they are going to have a hard time with this.  We didn’t want to just ask for more money.  When you look around the county, we are by far the lowest funded Fire District.  We are always looking for other sources of funding likes grant, but right now this is what we need to do.

VV:  You don’t just respond to fires,  do you?

CS: I feel like the community doesn’t fully understand what we are and what we do.  The fire service has changed over recent years to an EMS and rescue service.  We’re all encompassing.  If someone finds themselves in a situation they can’t handle, they call 9-1-1 and then either Fire, EMS, Law Enforcement, or usually all three, show up.   It’s been a gradual change, but now the community consistently asks for more from the fire service, but the permanent tax rate stays the same.  We’ve lasted on just that for several years, and I feel the community gets a good deal of coverage from us, but we’re at a point where we just don’t have a choice.