Fire district reflects on year, looks ahead

Benny Westcott

The Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District budget committee on May 16 unanimously approved a proposed 2023-24 budget reflecting an overall $513,862 increase over the previous year, one that saw a lot of changes, according to Fire Chief Nick Tyler.

In his budget message, Tyler reflected on that fiscal year, noting that the district hired one new full-time firefighter/paramedic position, which increased daily staffing to four full-time and two part-time employees, a total of six firefighters daily, the most staff on shift in the district’s history.

Numerous equipment upgrades came, as well, including the replacement of four old ambulance cots with new “auto-loading” models.

“This is a huge benefit for our personnel that no longer have to lift the cots into the back of the ambulance,” Tyler said.

The district also purchased five Getac laptop computers to provide personnel with “the most effective and efficient tools to complete accurate and timely reports,” Tyler said, adding, “These have great backups and customer service, ensuring that we will always have working computers on our ambulances.”

In addition, the district installed mobile data terminals (MDTs) on all medic units. These provide access to critical call information, pre-fire plans, mapping software and the ability to capture accurate times. The MDTs also have GPS locators to keep battalion chiefs apprised of medic units’ positions.

“This information is a critical component of resource management and will allow the battalion chiefs to make more informed decisions on when to call for mutual aid or upgrade alarms,” Tyler said.

Training equipment for both fire and EMS continues to improve, he reported.

“We are moving back toward focusing on in-person training, but still have online training that now supplements our in-person trainings,” he said.

Tyler added that the district continues to use software to track training and will continue to look for ways to improve training accountability by finding more effective and efficient uses for its software.

The district also completed a Station 21 remodel. According to Tyler, the project was finished on time despite some “big delays in supply chain issues and contractor availability.”

“We now have a main station that will withstand an earthquake and has a great refreshed look to it,” he said.

Looking ahead, Tyler said that the district must address its serious radio-communication issues. It has applied for an assistance to firefighters grant (AFG) for the $706,000 project, which would require a $33,628 district obligation. If the grant application is unsuccessful, Tyler said, the project will be considered on a future bond.

He said that the need for a three-story training facility is a high priority as Sweet Home continues to grow and three-story apartment complexes are added to the landscape. The district will be looking at a partnership with the Lebanon Fire District to use its training facility as well as analyzing the viability of obtaining funds with a bond to secure its own.

Tyler said that staffing the district’s part-time firefighter program is a continuing challenge, with strategies to ensure program staffing under development. In the current job market, he said, firefighters and emergency medical technicians can find full-time employment with large agencies, resulting in a shrinking candidate pool.

But, Tyler noted, “We have demonstrated the value of our part-time program, and our folks are very marketable.”

The district’s volunteer firefighter program has lost many positions to what Tyler called “a very complex and national issue.” With 18 volunteer firefighters, the district is developing more recruitment plans.

The chief said that alternative funding will continue to be a priority as general costs continue to increase. The district will explore options and work with the Special Districts Association of Oregon on this issue throughout the next year.

Tyler also plans for seismic retrofit work on Station 22, which he felt “should produce another safe and updated fire station in the district,” he said.

Also at the meeting:

— Former district lieutenant/paramedic Zach Lincoln directed questions to the board during five allotted minutes of speaking time. At a previous meeting, he’d outlined alleged incidents of district-related conduct and law violations related to his dismissal the previous month.

Lincoln, a 15-year district veteran, was terminated March 29 for failing to sign a settlement agreement after being on administrative leave for more than 11 months.

The termination occurred after he said he’d hand-delivered letters March 1 to the board’s members detailing concerns regarding current Chief Tyler and his predecessor, Dave Barringer, and “violations of Oregon and federal law, including allegations of criminal conduct.”

At the April 18 board meeting, Lincoln read a list of 21 Oregon revised statutes that he claimed were violated by the district, dealing with issues including discrimination, workplace harassment, sick leave, family leave, workers compensation, return to work by injured employees, reasonable accommodation, disability issues, prohibited conduct by public employers, whistleblower retaliation and other alleged violations.

Lincoln also alleged violations of two sections of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, as well as his First and 14th Amendment rights.

On May 16, he asked whether the board’s civil service rules, adopted in March, were done so under ordinance, charter or regulation.

He then asked how the board justified to the public spending more than $150,000 in taxpayer money on an outside investigator, overtime, loss of coverage and fringe benefits during his leave for an investigation that wouldn’t allow for demotion or termination under civil service law.

Finally, he inquired about proper procedure for someone who wanted to discuss something in executive session with the board, after he claimed that he requested to meet with the board in executive session in the March 1 letter and was never given that opportunity.

“We are operating still under the guidance of our attorney,” Board President Dawn Mitchell replied, adding that the board would review his documents and “work under the guidance and direction of our attorney.”

— Tyler shared that the district is launching a new support program called Fire Corps, which provides on-scene emotional support for tragedy victims’ family members as well as firefighter support on calls. Four applicants have signed up so far.

“EMS is really good at dealing with the problem. We are not so good at dealing with the family,” Tyler said. “So having somebody that’s been trained in that come to the scene and take that off our paramedics’ plates does great things for our crews as well as the community.”

On-call firefighter support would include rehabilitation as well as help with air bottles, shade and ice water. Volunteers would also be trained to check blood pressure and heart rates to ensure that personnel are fit to return to a firefight.

“It’s all those things that we should be providing but don’t have the resources to,” Tyler said.

The district’s volunteer association has fundraised $58,000 for a support vehicle.

“The concept of having more support volunteers is a win-win for the district,” Tyler said. “It will allow our firefighters to fight fire and have people who will support them in staying engaged in that operation.

“It will also create an environment for our community where if you want to volunteer the fire district has a place for you. We will no longer only be looking to recruit ‘firefighters’ but also people to help our firefighters and community.”

— According to Tyler, the district’s ‘C’ shift ran 22 calls for service in a 24-hour period on May 13. He believed that was a record for a non-event type day, which would exclude wind events, the 2020 firestorm and the Oregon Jamboree weekend.

“We were fully staffed, but 22 calls with six people’s a lot,” he said. “What our people are able to accomplish with the number of people they have and what they’re asked to do is amazing.”

— Tyler shared the results of a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis undertaken internally by staff over the past year.

He discussed the theme identified by employees for each letter in the acronym.

“The theme for the strengths of the fire district comes down to people,” he said.

“And it’s pretty amazing. I talked about what ‘C’ shift did three days ago, and that happens almost weekly. They get challenged and they rise to it.”

The theme for “weaknesses” included lack of time, money, people and resources.

“Opportunities” focused on budgetary and training opportunities, mentorship, community and career paths. “Threats” were represented by revenues versus expenses, increasing call volume, increasing population and partners facing the same issues.

— Tyler reported that April’s transportation rate was at 60%, with 170 patients taken to area hospitals.

— Board Secretary/Treasury Charlene Adams shared that the district recorded an April income of $150,724.64 and expenses of $238,042.41 for a net income of -$87,317.77. At the end of the month, the district had $234,131.25 in checking and $1,949,492.66 in savings, for a total of $2,183,623.91 in available cash.