The fire chief's staffing plans for the Wren substation have led to questions for those involved. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath Fire & Rescue’s board of directors on Monday afternoon listened to a lot of information and perspectives related to plans to bring the Wren substation into the district’s emergency response equation.

Fire Chief Tom Miller shared his ideas about staffing the rural facility, which is identified by the district as Station 202, and got into what he called the final draft of a proposed intergovernmental agreement with the Hoskins-Kings Valley Rural Fire District on a training and response plan.

Meanwhile, Philomath Volunteer Association President Andy Louden talked for just under an hour about the volunteer program with an emphasis on the ongoing tactical pause related to those Station 202 plans and responses to various comments by Miller in a recent newspaper article about the Wren substation.

And board member Ken Corbin vocalized his concerns with the Wren plans and had comments that illustrated an apparent disconnect between administration and emergency responders when it comes to being dispatched to out-of-district calls. Corbin also had questions on several other points revolving around such responses.

Near the end of the meeting, which had been going on for more than 2-1/2 hours, board president Daphne Phillips reached a point that prompted her to say that she doesn’t understand the lack of communication that appears to exist between the fire chief and the staff — especially with the association’s Louden. Phillips said she wants to see the Wren station staffing issue resolved by the next meeting, which is scheduled for July 11.

“It’s not my role to step in and tell you how to do this kind of day-to-day management,” Phillips said. “But it’s pretty clear that people are not understanding, that they’re not either getting up to date or I don’t know what’s happened. There shouldn’t be sides; I don’t know what’s happening here but everybody needs to be brought up together to make sure that this improves because this is not working.”

Board member Rick Brand expressed the belief that all involved have the ability to work out their issues.

“I’ve never been in an organization where there haven’t been just different opinions,” Brand said. “I do believe we’re all reasonable people and we all have the same goal and if that’s the case, we’ll figure out ways to get through that. Not everybody’s going to get everything they want in any kind of conflict and differences of opinion, but we find common ground where we can actually move forward.”

One of the points of contention around staffing relates to making sure enough qualified resources remain at Philomath’s main station. Miller said Station 202 would not be staffed unless at least five firefighters were on duty in the district.

“We have to have five personnel on duty before we can do anything,” Miller said, which includes weekends and after hours. He provided an example.

“Say we have six on duty that day, four would stay here and two would go out there for the day and cover that area,” Miller said, adding that a “qualified leader” would be part of the formula — someone who can drive apparatus (such as the light rescue truck stationed at Wren), possess emergency medical services (EMS) certification and has taken Deputy Chief Chancy Ferguson’s initial tactics class.

Louden during his report challenged Miller’s plan, in particular the use of emergency medical responders (commonly referred to as EMRs), which he said involves staff with the least amount of medical training recognized by the state.

“If the EMR is also a driver-operator, the second person requires no qualifications,” Louden said. “No level of experience or other training is required.”

Miller acknowledged Louden’s comments and said it appears that more discussion will be needed on EMS certification and the use of EMRs.

On the issue of allegedly leaving the Philomath station undermanned, Miller expressed confusion over those types of comments.

“I don’t understand some of the pushback because we would never abandon this station to go staff that station,” Miller said. “We would never go on a call out of district if we didn’t have backfill here. The duty officers are very astute to that … they understand that, they’re taught that we don’t send people out of district if we don’t have people backfilling.”

Those are a few examples in a wide-ranging issue of the administration and the association not being on the same page.

Said Phillips later in the meeting, “This is all internal politics and doesn’t concern the board but that we really hope and expect that you guys are going to be able to work this out.”

The board took a look at what Miller said was the final draft of the IGA with the Hoskins-Kings Valley Rural Fire District. Miller said the latest version had language that was pared down from earlier drafts.

“One of the things that we discussed at the Hoskins-Kings Valley meeting was that we didn’t want to make it too sophisticated or too detailed for it being only a one-year deal,” Miller said. “We wanted to keep things fairly simple and then we wanted to make sure that we provide a provision just in case the contract were to go defunct, if you will … so we wanted to include that in there.”

Miller said both districts plan to meet once a year just prior to the contract’s expiration to discuss any changes before possible renewal.

“Most people don’t realize that the purpose of the contract is to provide mainly (Deputy) Chief Ferguson and myself … to help Kings Valley up their training,” Miller said.

Miller said he’s received a lot of questions about how the $23,000 figure came up as the amount to be paid by Hoskins-Kings Valley to Philomath Fire & Rescue as part of the agreement. He said that basically, one-third of the costs are to run the building, including utilities, and then to pay for 32 hours shared by Miller and Ferguson per month to provide supervision and training.

The draft agreement shows that Philomath agrees to “provide a two-person response from Station 202 as defined in the automatic aid agreement,” Miller saying that means a response out of Wren would only occur if personnel are available.

The auto agreement is a separate document that’s been in effect for close to three years, Miller added. Corbin had issues with the wording and believed the reference should be removed entirely because “it makes an applied promise that we can’t keep.”

The board did not take a vote on the proposed agreement but decided that it would like to meet with the Hoskins-Kings Valley RFD board for clarification purposes and then bring it back in July.

Related to the topic at hand, the Oregon Office of the State Marshal’s wildfire season staffing grant program will award up to $32,500 to Philomath Fire & Rescue, Miller reported. Allowable costs under the program’s guidelines include those associated with personnel, including students or interns, paid volunteers and additional shifts or overtime for career firefighters, as well as administrative costs with certain restrictions.

“I’m in the process of hiring some part-time folks to fill those holes,” Miller said, adding that he was hoping to bring on two per day. “You’re lucky to do that … there’s just not a lot of folks out there and over a hundred fire departments got it (the grant) so we’re all fighting over the same people.”

Miller said he hopes to start staffing the positions on July 1.

“The purpose of it would be to just add more personnel while people are on vacation or if we have obviously more of a threat out there fire-wise,” Miller said, pointing out that those would be temporary positions. “We can also put some staffing out at 202 during the day … so that’s kind of my intent there.”

Said Louden in his report, “We are hopeful those hired possess the skills to lead a crew effectively. Merely employing an RV (resident volunteer) as a part-time employee does not resolve the training, qualification and experience issue.”

Miller said there will need to be a discussion about how to continue funding those positions when the grant runs out this fall.

Overall, based on the length of the discussions and the many questions that seem to remain on the Wren substation issue, the parties involved appear to have some work to do to reach resolutions.

Phillips did say that as the board president, she wants to see the Station 202 issue wrapped up “within the next month (and) have a plan that everybody has agreed upon and move forward.”

Brandt expressed confidence in the process.

“I think there’s nothing that we’ve talked about today that can’t be resolved if we put all our heads together and work together as a group,” he said.

In other news out of the meeting, the board adopted a $2.2 million budget for fiscal year 2022-23, which includes $1.8 million to the general fund for personnel, equipment, services and other expenses and $402,539 to the bonded debt service fund. The board also approved a resolution related to imposing taxes at the rate of $2.0080 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The meeting included an update on a discussion on district needs based on a proposed local option levy. A previous estimate of $8 million was lowered to just under $6.5 million for fiscal years 2023-24 through 2027-28.

“We started out with some general concepts and drove it down to these items,” Miller said. “These are some of the items that we can take to the public and talk about … our needs and our concerns. I think that’s about as pointed of the pencil that we can get.”

The list includes $600,000 in 2023-24 for a Station 201 training facility, $400,000 in 2024-25 for Station 202 remodeling and funds for hiring additional firefighters.

Board members briefly debated the timing of going out for a levy — possibly in May 2023 or perhaps delay it another year until May 2024.

“I do still think with a levy on our horizon whether it’s a year from now or two years from now, we still need to be walking this path,” said Lillee Rodriguez, office administrator. “It might be through those community meetings that we get some feedback that says, ‘No, we want to prioritize something different.’”

The board also approved a 6% cost-of-living adjustment for nonunion employees and added Juneteenth as a paid holiday to align with the federal designation.

To read through the board’s full meeting packet, click here.

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.