Not far off Highway 20 west of Philomath, a small, rural fire station sits on Wren Road. The aging structure carries the name of a longtime firefighter from that particular part of the county who passed away more than 20 years ago.
A cargo container can be seen nearby and off to the side and behind the station sits a small trailer, the type you typically see used as an office at construction sites. Fire trucks are housed inside the three-bay main building and take up the majority of the space with little room to do much of anything else.
Philomath Fire & Rescue calls it Station 202 and it’s located a little over five miles, or about a seven-minute drive, from the district’s home station on Main Street.
Except for the highway traffic speeding along the blacktop in the distance, it seems to be mostly quiet out here. But the substation and its future has created a stir within the Fire & Rescue community.
Fire Chief Tom Miller wants to regularly staff the site in a strategy to increase response times and better support rural areas. Miller points to directives out of the district’s most recent master plan, a lack of volunteers living in that vicinity and recent negotiations with the Hoskins-Kings Valley Rural Fire Protection District that commits to providing a two-person response out of the Wren station.
“The residents in Wren pay the same amount of taxes as the rest of the fire district and they deserve the best coverage we can provide within our budget,” Miller said. “Because we have no volunteers out there, we are forced to look for other means of providing that coverage. Providing paid staff and resident volunteers is the only way that’s feasible to achieve that goal at this time.”
Not everybody is on the same page with the idea. The Philomath Fire & Rescue Volunteer Association has various concerns related to policies, procedures and staffing that prompted a “tactical pause.”
“It basically says that we would like to stop, re-evaluate what we’re doing,” said Andy Louden, association president. “We’re not saying not to do it, we fully support the organization but we want to make sure that our members are in a situation where they can serve the public well and be successful doing it.”
Also with a seat at the table is the union — International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4925 — which will not send any of its members to the rural station because of livability issues and placing a priority on adequately staffing Station 201 in Philomath. The union and district signed a memorandum of understanding that spells it all out.
“We’ve been working through this issue with the chief for a while and we ended up doing a ‘demand to bargain’ under the grounds of the changing work conditions,” said Andrew Licon, union president. “The agreement that we came to with the chief was that when permanent structures are erected that are permitted and legal, we will consider staffing that station.”
The chief’s intentions with Station 202
Miller, now in his sixth year at the helm in Philomath, prioritizes response times as a main reason for staffing the Wren station.
“It’s about seven minutes from 201 to 202 as far as response goes,” Miller said, “and so we’re trying to get that AED out there quicker, we’re trying to get folks out to vehicle accidents on Highway 20 a little quicker and obviously to fires, too.
“A chief friend of mine used to say and this is very true — any response over 15 minutes is not an effective response,” he added. “So when you think about Wren being seven or eight minutes away and we don’t have people to go out there, then everything we go to out there’s going to be 15 minutes or longer from here (in Philomath).”
Miller said the implementation of an updated master plan in 2019 set forth in motion a series of upgrades proposed to be phased in at Wren.
“We’ve had a plan all along,” Miller said. “Our master plan has spelled out different projects out there. We’re actually in the third year of it … in our next fiscal year, which begins in July, our next focus will be on building a new building for the apparatus to sit in.”
According to the fire district’s 2019 master plan, Station 202 goals include bringing in temporary living quarters (within three years), implementing a plan to construct a new apparatus bay (within five years) and rebuilding the station to accommodate a water tender and permanent residence (within 10 years).
In the proposed 2022-23 budget is funding for the construction of a metal building, described by Miller as a pole barn-type structure.
“We’ll move the fire trucks over to that location and then the plan is to renovate the existing structure and put in permanent bedrooms, office, legitimate kitchen, living space and also provide space for the Wren emergency management group that’s out there,” Miller said.
The main building’s renovations would be funded during the 2023-24 fiscal year.
Daphne Phillips, president of the Philomath Fire & Rescue board of directors, said that she sees more pros than cons with the chief’s plans.
“Right now there, it’s not fully staffed for 24 hours, so that’s obviously a gap for folks out there,” she said. “We need to make sure that everybody in our service area is adequately covered. I know that the team is working really hard to figure out how best to do that.”
The Wren building was originally constructed in 1980 with a two-bay station. In the 1990s, it expanded with a third bay along with a bathroom and a small office, which has since been converted into a kitchen/lunchroom.
In 1999, the building was dedicated in memory of the late William P. “Pat” Brown, a 19-year volunteer for the fire department who was heavily involved in the Wren community.
The trailer now on site has rooms on each end with a common area in the middle.
“We had gone out to the 202 station with some of the RV staff just to learn about what some of their concerns were,” Phillips said. “Then I think the chief started addressing (concerns) in the listening sessions to make sure everybody was able to say what they needed to say … so that we get everybody’s input and perspectives.”
RVs, by the way, is fire district lingo for resident volunteers.
The union’s response to Wren plans
Philomath Fire & Rescue’s paid emergency response staff includes the fire chief, assistant fire chief, three lieutenants and a daytime firefighter. Local 4925 represents five of those positions — all but the chief and assistant fire chief.
In all, the fire district has seven paid staff members, but currently has one vacancy, Miller said, although he added that a volunteer stepped up and is temporarily filling those responsibilities.
Licon was installed as president of the local chapter earlier this year.
As mentioned, the union cited issues with the sleeping quarters in the trailer as well as other livability issues. In Oregon, organized labor organizations can go to bargaining if there’s any sort of drastic change in working conditions, Licon pointed out.
“That was starting to be an expectation — that we were going to staff that building and we didn’t feel that the living situation was quite acceptable,” Licon said during an interview on May 9. “We submitted the demand to bargain … and what we came to is that the five union members will not participate in the staffing model for that station — we’ll stay here.”
The following points were included in an MOU, which came out of an April 25 bargaining session:
• No members of the union shall be assigned staffing of Station 202 until all facilities have completed permanent work with signed permits.
• Anticipated agreements for mutual or automatic aid to other agencies, or any changes to existing agreements shall be considered a change in working conditions …”
• The district has agreed that the staffing of Station 201 is priority over any staffing of other stations, and that the district will make every effort to maintain a three-person response crew at Station 201, all of whom must be entry-qualified and at least one EMT.”
Although the MOU remains in effect, the union appears to be committed to continue working on issues at the substation.
“We are still working with district leadership to help solve issues at Station 202 and continue to work towards that goal,” Licon said in a report to the board last month. “Even though this will not change the terms in the MOU we want to keep working collaboratively.”
The association’s tactical pause
On Feb. 5, the association initiated a tactical pause — a term that basically refers to slowing something down to take a closer look at the plans. Louden pointed out that the association does not set policy nor does it tell the district how to run the fire department.
The tactical pause, he said, was based on three premises:
• Safety — “The number, training, experience and qualifications of assigned personnel is not currently documented for staffed stations. Staffing station 202 at most times leaves below safe staffing at Station 201 and Station 202 for fire calls. There is currently an insufficient pool of personnel to achieve safe staffing levels.”
• Operating guidelines — “No formal written operating policies/guidelines are available. The current standard of coverage does not fulfill this.”
• Logistics — “The personnel quarters at Station 202 need improvements to provide for the privacy, safety and comfort of assigned personnel.”
The first point is one of the biggest concerns for the association.
“The plan was to station two RVs, to put them out 24 hours at a time, essentially by themselves,” Louden said. “That’s where the training, qualifications and experience, why we were worried about that.”
Very little continuity exists when it comes to RVs, which quickly come and go through the district.
“The majority of our volunteers are resident volunteers and they’re young people, most of whom are looking to come into this industry,” Louden said. ‘One of the incentives to be an RV … is we reimburse them for their college education and we give them a place to live. But the churn on them is relatively high — about 18 months on average.”
The association has been trying to recruit and retain to try to offset a significant turnover.
“We do recognize it’s a very difficult issue,” Louden said. “This is a trend across the United States — it’s really, really hard to get volunteers anymore. And I think it’s because people have other things to do, they have busy lives, and the requirements to be a firefighter from different agencies like OSHA and stuff, it’s a significant amount of training, several hundred hours of training. And so people just aren’t as interested anymore.”
Currently, Miller said four RVs are leaving and this month, three new ones will be coming in.
“It’s just long enough to get them through the fire academy, EMT school and then if we’re lucky, we get them to be able to drive a fire truck — and then they leave,” Miller said. “The max that we have to pay to them in a year is $10,800 … so if you think about you get a person year-round for $10,800, it’s way cheaper than trying to pay a full-time employee.”
The bottom line with the association, Louden said, is just knowing that qualified individuals with a certain level of experience are on the job at the Wren station.
“We are not opposed to staffing 202,” Louden said. “We just want to make sure everybody’s trained properly because we don’t want to send kids out there and have them be overwhelmed. The public should get what they’re expecting and a kid should not be scarred for life because they didn’t know what to do or get themselves killed.”
Miller has written strongly-worded emails over the issue, saying on one occasion that he’s not in favor of the volunteer association “throwing out roadblocks” to keep the district from reaching goals set in motion by himself and the board, adding, “I view this as a form of insubordination and is subject to disciplinary action.”
Louden said the association wants to “make sure there are policies and procedures that have been thought through on that and that the facilities and the logistical support for the folks out there is there.”
Said the union’s Licon, “We stand in solidarity with the volunteer association and in their position.”
Chief shares details of approach to staffing
Miller provided an update during an interview on Friday about where things stand with the approach to staffing plans at the Wren site.
“Where we’re at right now is we’re going to provide at least one — I guess you might want to call them paid staff or unpaid staff — out there with an RV during the day,” Miller said. “And then at night, we will switch to two resident volunteers.”
Miller said those individuals recently went through a basic incident command class to train them on how to respond to “a higher acuity medical call, how to operate equipment, those kinds of things. So, they’ve all been brought up to a little bit higher level of expertise.”
Added Miller, “The focus now is we’ve got everybody kind of where we want them to where we think we all feel comfortable and they feel more comfortable.”
Also coming into the picture is legislation in the form of Senate Bill 762, which is making roughly $4 million accessible to all 306 fire service agencies in the state through the awarding of grants. Miller hopes Philomath Fire & Rescue can secure some of that funding — the maximum amount that could be received is $35,000 — to help with part-time summer hires.
The Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal said it will begin reviewing applications on June 6. If Philomath is awarded funds, Miller said “that’ll provide some financial means for people out there (at Station 202) during the day, which means we can hire some part-timers.”
As stated based on the MOU, the union members will not staff the station.
“We will not go below a three-person response crew here (at Station 201),” Licon said. “All three of those people must be qualified to go interior on a structure fire and we have to have at least one EMT basic here. … If I’ve got four people here and one of them is not interior qualified, then we’re not going to be going to do that. We’re going to try to keep as many people here as we can, so the union was able to work that out with the chief.”
Said Miller about his staffing options, “The part-time firefighters are willing to do it, the resident volunteers and other volunteers are all willing to step up and help. And then with this grant, I’ll be able to hire part-timers for the specific role.”
Licon expressed mixed feelings about the whole situation.
“It’s been a little difficult because we want to provide service to the entire district as best we can but we only have so many resources,” Licon said. “Our call volume dictates us staffing and responding from this building as the majority of our calls are in Philomath proper. It’s been a tough pill to swallow to try to split resources up and put them in that building.
“That being said, it’s not the union’s prerogative to set the mission, vision and values of the department — it’s the chief’s,” Licon added. “And if that’s something he thinks is a priority, as long as it’s safe and not to the detriment of the greater good, we will strive to fulfill that mission.”
Adequate future coverage in Philomath?
With the Wren situation and the district automatically heading to calls in neighboring districts, one might grow concerned that the fire district’s response team could be thinned down in numbers and experience to the point of putting Philomath lives and properties at risk. Corvallis and Monroe would certainly step in but response times could come into play depending on the severity of a fire, for example.
Asked for his take on the concern, Miller said he’s comfortable with the response available for local emergencies.
“When I first got here (in 2016), we were lucky to have two people in here at any given moment,” Miller said. “And now during the day, we’re usually sitting at up to eight folks … and it winds down to five at night. So we’ve upgraded our game a lot.”
Miller said a new approach to how responders are used in relation to apparatus has been tweaked to make sure available staffing remains intact to handle those days when call volumes are high.
“The other day when we were on that little fire (June 1 at 33rd Place) … we got called on a medical out on Evergreen,” Miller said. “It happens, it happens a lot now, and so we keep preparing ourselves for that to make sure everything’s covered properly.”
Board president Phillips said she’s not fully versed on specifics of the staffing patterns that have been discussed but expressed confidence that the chief would not put the town at risk.
“They’re working out staffing schedules with RVs and other volunteers to ensure that all of our stations are adequately staffed and we can meet the needs of basically everybody in the community as best we can,” she said.
Working with Hoskins-Kings Valley RFPD
Philomath Fire & Rescue currently responds to pretty much all calls in the Hoskins-Kings Valley district through an automatic aid agreement that’s been in place for about three years, Miller said.
“We go to fires, vehicle accidents and medical calls,” he said. “Things like wires down, lift assists, good intent calls, those types of calls we do not go to … they do those on their own.”
A new intergovernmental agreement between the two entities has been proposed — and it does have a connection to Wren station staffing. Miller said Friday that he expects it to be signed this month. The most recent version of the agreement, he added, includes minor changes from the draft shared at last month’s board meeting.
“I think there was consensus on both sides,” Miller said. “It’s only a one-year thing and let’s keep it simple … we can add more things if we need, or redefine items if we need to.”
Miller believes it’s a positive for both districts.
“I just see a lot of benefits with us protecting them and them coming down and protecting us when we need them,” Miller said. “And also, we don’t want a big fire out in the west and get a big head of steam before it gets to Wren because they couldn’t handle it.”
With the small pool of volunteers, it seems rare that the rural districts would be able to provide much help in the other direction to Philomath. Miller said it goes beyond that, however.
“Yeah, it is a little bit one-sided but the truth of the matter is, they’re sharing their staffing and another thing that’s in the agreement with Kings Valley is us being able to share equipment,” Miller said. “That’s huge. So let’s say, if we send a brush truck to a conflag out of the area, they’ll let us borrow one or we’ll relocate it to Wren so it can cover both districts. That’s huge … it’ll keep us from having to buy equipment more often and we’ll be able to still maintain a good response in both areas.”
The agreement with Kings Valley would pay Philomath $23,000 to help defray about a third of the expense of operating the Wren station — specifically wages for the fire chief and deputy fire chief, along with the training of Hoskins-Kings Valley personnel.
“We’re trying to elevate all of the services in the general area and if we can partner with other entities to help them and at the same time gain something for Philomath in terms of more resources … we’re in the process of looking at that and trying to determine just exactly how that should work,” Phillips said. “But I don’t think that we would enter into anything long term or binding without testing it out.”
Licon said the union “is all for providing service to places that might not have the best service all the time … I think we’d like to see some things in that IGA be a little bit different.”
For example, he mentioned that the $23,000 figure should be higher and that there should not be a stipulation that a response has to come out of the Wren substation.
Miller said the Blodgett-Summit Rural Fire Protection District has a wait-and-see approach in terms of a similar agreement.
“I wouldn’t want to do both at the same time anyway,” Miller said. “This has taken me over a year to get where we are right now with Kings Valley, so I really want to see how it goes, start working out some kinks. And Blodgett already said that if things are going well, then we’ll be able to talk about an agreement with them.”
Miller acknowledges that sometimes, the best-laid plans don’t always come out as expected. “We can always after one year, if this isn’t working, we either need to re-draft it or go back to what’s been going on,” he said.
Levy request by district appears to be on horizon
The fire district, established in 1985, is funded by property taxes. In May 2016, voters approved a $3.5 million bond with the district coming up on its sixth year of repayment on the loan.
The need for a levy has been discussed, Miller said, as a means to hire more full-time staff as fewer and fewer volunteers become available.
“202 is a prime example of the lack of volunteers,” Miller said. “Out there, right now we have zero volunteers in Wren, so we don’t have anyone responding out of that area at all. That’s why there’s been such a hard focus on trying to get somebody out there.”
In the board’s March meeting materials, a levy calendar illustrates a timeline that shows the issue as being planned for the May 2023 ballot. It outlines a strategy to discuss district needs and budget shortfalls in Fire & Rescue’s spring, summer and fall newsletters. Various other steps in the process are detailed as well.
Despite that document, Miller said Friday that no final decision has been made on when a levy would go on the ballot. May 2023 could be a challenge, for example, because of other factors coming into play. For example, Benton County’s plans for a bond measure to fund a new law enforcement center appears to be headed for that same May 2023 ballot.
Whatever the timeline may be, Miller said he’s been tasked by the board with coming up with a list of needs, which he called “robust” and have been discussed at meetings.
In 2021, Fire & Rescue’s districtwide call volume numbered 879 — an increase of 14.2% from 2020 and 57.9% from a decade ago.
As for the amount of a levy, Miller said there is no firm number just yet. However, the March board meeting materials included an estimate of $8 million, with needs including the replacement of equipment, personnel additions (including a paid daytime firefighter at Wren) and various other items, including $200,000 for a complete Station 202 remodel.
“The union supports the idea of a levy to help support operations and increasing staffing levels,” Licon said in a report to the board. “It is felt that the current target number may be too large. The union can help campaign for a levy in ways the board and the department cannot. With that said, we think it would be easier to do if the number was smaller. … We will also need to discuss how a levy impacts current staff funding.”
The fire district’s budget committee recently recommended approval of a $2.4 million budget for fiscal year 2022-23, which will go to a public hearing and vote before the district board on June 13.
“The problem is we have a master plan and then we have a vehicle-replacement plan and I’ll just give you an example,” Miller said. “For the apparatus-replacement plan, we need to be shoving away about $1.2 million a year just to be able to replace our equipment when it starts dying on us.”
The typical fire truck, Miller said, is online for about 10 years before it is relegated to reserve status or retired.
Personnel are also a major expense with payroll alone going up about $10,000 a year, Miller added.
What about new fire district or 190 agreement?
A possibility that could be on the table down the road to deal with financial and staffing challenges could be the formation of a new, larger fire district. Miller was asked if he would support such a move.
“Would I be against forming a new district? I’d say no, I would not be against that,” Miller said. “But I think we have a long way to go to get there.”
Coming into play with a larger district is an unpredictable future for the smaller districts, namely Hoskins-Kings Valley and Blodgett-Summit.
“I know that the two smaller districts, they know their futures, and they’re having a really hard time with their volunteer staffing,” Miller said. “One of the key things around their problems is the age of their staffing … they’re all older folks. It’s hard to get a younger person to move into Kings Valley or Blodgett that doesn’t commute or work in the logging industry until dark every night … they don’t want to go home and play volunteer firefighter.”
The number of volunteers in the rural districts are in the single digits, Miller said.
“From what I’m understanding, if you form a new district and say us and Kings Valley merged, we can set a tax rate — we can take it to the public to set a tax rate at that moment,” Miller said.
Miller said it’s something to consider.
“Look at it this way. If we were to do something like that, then we would not have to go back to the voters every five years and say we need more money for apparatus or we need more money for staffing,” Miller said. “Because what happens with those levies and bonds, if they don’t get approved, then you can’t move forward. You may even have to lay off staff or whatever.”
Currently, the Kings Valley permanent tax rate for fire protection is 2.40%, higher than Philomath’s tax rate of 1.508% — those numbers reported by the Oregon Fire District Directors Association. The state has not allowed fire districts to increase their permanent tax rates since the 1990s.
The move, if it materialized, would have a significant number of hoops to jump through, including dissolving current districts and reforming of a new one — all with the approval of voters.
Fire district board member Ken Corbin asked about a possible Kings Valley merger in a February meeting and expressed concern “about whether or not the local constituency will support that effort,” according to the meeting minutes.
Although Miller said he wouldn’t be against the idea of a new district, there are many pieces of the puzzle to consider. He mentioned that a 190 agreement with Philomath and the neighboring districts could be an answer.
“In the big scheme of things, it’s hard (to answer),” Miller said about the best option. “I mean, there’s a lot of places, like Lane Fire Authority is a prime example, where they have three different agencies that work under one agreement — and so they maintain their own boards and maintain their own equipment and buildings and all the other kinds of stuff. But they all fall under one fire chief and they can move around the staffing essentially.”
Under 190 agreements, governmental agencies are allowed by state statute to consolidate resources without a vote of the people. Albany and Millersburg is another relatively recent example of such an arrangement.
Could a merger of 190 agreement with Hoskins-Kings Valley be in the cards?
“The ultimate goal, we don’t really know at this point as far as whether or not we want to merge or not and become one,” Miller said. “Right now, we’re just trying to make their training better, help them step up their game a little bit so that they can help be a good backup for us and we can work in tandem together to provide the best service we can out there.”