A disagreement between Philomath Fire & Rescue’s chief and the department’s volunteer firefighters’ association over the staffing of a rural substation intensified last week when the chief suspended the president and vice president of the association.
Fire Chief Tom Miller declined to comment on the suspensions of Philomath Fire & Rescue Volunteer Association President Andy Louden and Vice President Jessica Olsen. According to emails they both received from Miller on June 21 and shared with the Philomath News, they were suspended until further notice.
“I am investigating your involvement at last week’s board meeting and your continued resistance to provide coverage to Station 202,” Miller wrote, a reference to Louden’s comments during a volunteer association report at the June 13 Fire & Rescue board meeting. “I will contact you when I have completed my investigation and bring you in for a disciplinary review board to determine your future with the district at that time.”
Station 202 is the district’s designation for the Wren substation. Miller’s plans for its staffing has been a topic of discussion over the past few months, including at board of directors meetings.
Andrew Licon, president of the Philomath Firefighters International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4925, said, “The union is not in support of the district decision to suspend Andy Louden and Jessica Olsen.”
Local 4925 represents Fire & Rescue’s professional members. The Philomath Fire & Rescue Volunteer Association is an independent nonprofit organization that represents the district’s volunteers.
In a joint statement issued Tuesday afternoon, the volunteer association and the union announced that each membership had approved votes of no confidence in the fire chief’s leadership.
“The officers of PFRVA took this vote of no confidence in Chief Miller’s ability to effectively lead this organization with an element of remorse and great disappointment,” the release states. “They recognize this action will result in loss of public esteem for this organization, but feel there is no other satisfactory recourse.”
The volunteer association and Local 4925 said in the statement (read the full release here) that they hope the board of directors “will act decisively to move Philomath Fire & Rescue past these difficult times” and want to work with the board to resolve issues.
Contacted Tuesday about the no-confidence votes, Miller said he had no comment at this time.
As of Monday, Louden and Olsen hadn’t been contacted about a date for the disciplinary review board hearing. Miller announced the suspensions in an email to all levels of staff last week and asked that they not communicate with Louden and Olsen and that the pair was not allowed to participate in activities, be in any facilities or respond to calls.
“We have not been given any further information from Chief Miller since said emails, so we do not know for how long this suspension will last nor what it is that he is needing to investigate as he was present at the board meeting we gave our report at that he is claiming is the reason for our suspension,” said Olsen, who has been with Philomath Fire & Rescue since 2016 and has served for the past three years as the volunteer association’s vice president.
In an email also dated June 21 and shared with the News, Miller wrote to Louden and Olsen that they could not continue as voting members of the volunteer association until the matter was resolved because the association’s bylaws state that they must be in “good standing” with the district and “being suspended does not place (you) in good standing.”
Olsen said, “Though he can suspend us from activity at the department, the volunteer association is separate from the department with our own processes and bylaws therefore we (Andy and I) remain in our executive positions and remain as members of the association,” Olsen said. “We’ll continue to support our members and our community.”
Added Louden, “The department, in their own policies, state that while they recognize and support the association, it is not under the control of the department.”
In the June 14 email on the day following the board meeting, Miller had asked Louden and Olsen to provide a detailed list of what the association felt a resident volunteer needed in the way of training to be allowed to sleep at Station 202 and respond to calls.
The association formulated a letter of response, Louden said, which was sent June 17 with renewed points related to staffing safety issues and qualifications of the crew leader. In the letter, also shared with the Philomath News, two additional areas in an association-initiated “tactical pause” that remained unmet included discussions about operational guidelines and logistical support.
A tactical pause is a term that basically refers to slowing something down to take a closer look at the plans.
“The association cannot tell the department what to do,” Louden said. “We are merely representing the interests of our members … It’s entirely up to the board and the chief to make a decision. We have no authority over that whatsoever.”
Meanwhile, early last week, the Hoskins-Kings Valley Rural Fire District board approved an intergovernmental agreement with Fire & Rescue that includes Philomath’s staffing of the Wren station — at least when enough qualified personnel are available to make that possible.
Miller said Monday that he and the Fire & Rescue board president plan to meet with the Hoskins-Kings Valley RFD board president and fire chief “next week to finalize the agreement and hopefully sign it.”
Although the agreement is not officially in place pending signatures, Miller confirmed that the Wren substation is now being staffed.
“We began daytime staffing of Station 202 with a two-person crew on June 22 … kind of a soft opening, if you will,” Miller said. “We received an Oregon State Fire Marshal grant for summer staffing and that is helping to fund these positions.”
Licon said Monday that the union supports the idea of staffing Station 202 or any substation so long as it does not detract from the response from Station 201, which is the main facility in Philomath.
“Most of the calls for service come from the area directly served by Station 201,” Licon said. “Given the limitations in qualified manpower the district faces and the facilities’ issues at Station 202, we do not feel now is the best time to staff that building.”
The union and district have a memorandum of understanding in place that its five members will not staff the substation with those duties going to nonunion members and the part-time hires through the grant.
Said Licon, “The union will reconsider its position when permanent and legal facilities that support a safe working environment are in place at Station 202.”
Philomath Fire & Rescue Board President Daphne Phillips declined to be interviewed for this story.