Back as far as the early 2000s the Vernonia Rural Fire Protection District employed one full-time fire chief and one part-time executive assistant. The fire district responded to less than a few hundred total calls per year, and the presence of volunteers that both lived and worked in the community was plentiful. The volunteers and the Fire Chief responded to the needs of the community members and the visitors one call at a time. The fire station adequately fulfilled its need to house the district’s apparatus, the ambulances, work space for staff, and a location for the volunteers to train. For all intents and purposes, this was small town America and the volunteer fire service! It was a model that worked for decades across the nation, in small towns and medium size cities. Volunteers were generally all folks who lived, worked, and played in the communities they volunteered in and fire departments were the staple of the community.
As time has continued on, we are seeing the 100% volunteer model dwindle, and those departments move to a combination career, and volunteer model that provides a fire and EMS response in a different way. As we fast forward to 2022 we have seen nothing but significant call volume increases. Now we always expect that our call volumes will increase slightly, but for the past several months we are seeing increases as much as 50% of the average.
In July of 2022 your Fire District was awarded a grant from the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office to increase staffing during fire season. That grant, in the amount of $35,000, was used to hire two additional seasonal firefighters. This was huge because at the same time, after losing our Training Chief, we made the decision to replace the administrative position with two full-time firefighter/EMTs. In a matter of weeks the Fire District went from having two full-time employees, to now having six full-time response personnel. This could not have happened at a better time because in July we ran 98 calls for service compared to our yearly average of 50-60 calls per month. The seasonal staff were quickly brought onboard and assigned to a 24- hour-on and 48-hour-off schedule while our two permanent full-time firefighters were working a 4-days-on and 4-days-off schedule from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm. These two models complemented themselves perfectly, ensuring we had someone in the station 7 days a week from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm as well as 4-5 nights a week ensuring we have 24-hour coverage.
These staffing models were unlike anything this district has ever seen before. When we reviewed the data, the number of personnel per call average was up, the response time average for 2022 vs. 2021 is just over one minute FASTER, and we know for a fact that the additional staff have no doubt saved lives in our community.
The scary part about all of this is we know that the calls will continue to come in, and the needs of the community will need to be met. At the end of October 2022 we will have exhausted our grant funds and our seasonal firefighter positions will come to an end, taking our district back to being staffed 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. We are currently working on an additional grant to fund three additional full-time positions for the next three years, to once again increase the staffing and provide a better level of service to our community. We hope to have the outcome of that grant within the next few months, and if successful will be looking to quickly engage firefighter/EMT candidates through a recruitment and hiring process.
Our number one goal is to care for our community by ensuring that we have personnel to respond to your needs, with good equipment, and the right tools, to solve all problems. We can not do this without the continued support of our constituents.
On a side note, it had been rumored that the Vernonia Rural Fire Protection District was getting a new fire station! Wow, do we wish that was true, but fortunately or unfortunately, that is just rumor. We did however receive a seismic retrofit grant to ensure that our fire station is capable of withstanding an earthquake. When this project is finished your Vernonia Fire Station will look new, with lots of great work being put into it to ensure that it is functional and ready to serve our community during a natural disaster. What it does not do, is make needed changes to the building, add square footage, or increase apparatus bay parking space. This grant is 100% focused on ensuring we have a standing structure after a large earthquake.
What we are currently doing is working on renovations inside the station to add things that we need as a growing fire district. Currently the only living space in our fire station (dorm rooms) is rented to Metro West Ambulance. The kitchen was part of the original fire station (prior to the addition of office space) and has been for years located in the apparatus bay where the fire engines park. Imagine moving your kitchen into the garage, right next to your vehicle’s exhaust pipe, Yikes! So in order to save as much money as possible the staff of the Vernonia Rural Fire Protection District is in the process of renovating, cleaning, and will be adding things like a new front entrance, or at least what we will call the front entrance which is actually located behind the fire station in our parking lot, dorm rooms, kitchen, the ability to do laundry, and still ensure that we have areas for training! We are excited to say the least, and by our folks both career and volunteer putting in the hard work, we will be able to save the fire district thousands of dollars over hiring these projects out. If you have interest in seeing our current layout, please come by anytime. Our fire station is here because of the people, and the people of the fire station are here to serve you, our community. We are OPEN 7 days a week with firefighters on duty from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm – come see us, we will give you the tour, show you our needs, and explain our projects to you!