Fire District Solved Half the Problem, Asks Voters to Solve Other Half

Like many rural fire districts faced with rising costs and mandated EMS write-offs, Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District finds itself looking for ways to sustain its services and keep its community safe.

As such, Chief Nick Tyler started a program as a way to increase revenue and services, but will put out a bond request this month in the hope that voters will help fund what the new program cannot.

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In 2017, voters approved a seven-year bond for SHFAD at 37 cents per $1,000 assessed value. It paid for various needed apparatus such as tenders and fire engines. That bond was paid off this last budget cycle. SHFAD asks voters to renew the bond, so to speak, at 47 cents per $1,000.

This seven-year bond would pay for several things. First, it would fund two ambulances, which, according to Tyler, at today’s costs each have a $380,000 price tag. Unlike fire engines that can last up to 20 years, ambulances start running out of steam after four or five years, he said. Two Type 6 brush engines would also be funded.

One of the biggest ticket items the bond would pay for is radios. When Tyler came to Sweet Home from Lebanon in 2022, one of the first issues he noticed was the crews’ inability to communicate via radio very well, he said.

“We have a hard time communicating from vehicle to vehicle, from person to person in the city limits, let alone out in the wildland interface area, in the rural settings or further away from town,” he said. “It’s a big issue that I struggle with and it keeps me awake at night at times.”

Most often the struggle comes from communication with the ambulances, which receive calls on a daily basis, as opposed to fire calls that do not. Tyler explained that ambulances cannot reach the battalion commander through radio and, in some areas, they can’t get ahold of dispatch. SHFAD, he said, has basically been “Band-Aiding” or rigging the system, but it’s time to update it with working equipment.

“What do they do if they’re in a bad situation? It’s problematic, not just on the fire side of things, but on the day-to-day medical calls, and that’s in the city.”

Another big ticket item is a wood chipper, a tool that would not only be used by a hand crew Tyler is securing for revenue generation, but would also benefit the community. Initially, Tyler considered asking taxpayers for a levy that would help pull in more personnel, but SHFAD instead came up with a strategy to fill that need.

“We really took the approach of, ‘Let’s go out and solve this problem on our own, let’s think outside the box and not have to go to the taxpayers and ask them to double their tax burden to fix our personnel problem,’” Tyler said.

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Using grant money, SHFAD hired Christian Whitfield for a Wildfire Risk Reduction Program and then partnered with Oregon Department of Forestry to decrease fire risks surrounding the community. With $1.9 million funded by the National Forest Foundation (NFF), SHFAD will now be able to hire a 20-person hand crew to work on fuel-reduction with ODF as well as help homeowners create a defensible space around their homes. The NFF money not only pays for the crew, but it also brings in net revenue of about $1 million, according to Tyler. That’s where the chipper comes in.

Tyler explained the Wildfire Risk Reduction Program works with homeowners to create that defensible space, which involves cutting down trees and running them through a chipper. The bond would pay for a self-loading chipper that homeowners can use safely and easily.

Tyler also looks toward Cascadia, expecting the bond could help get its Station 24 functioning again.

“It currently has no volunteers,” he explained. “I want to do some building and site improvements there and turn that into kind of the wildland station where our hand crew will work out of.”

Sweet Home’s fire district covers 152 square miles and its ambulance district stretches 1,000 square miles, serving approximately 19,000 people. Tyler reported that in the past decade call volume has increased 41% and, during that same time period, SHFAD lost 11% of its volunteers (he said in the past 20 years the volunteer pool decreased as much as 40%).

Ambulance service operates like a business for many fire departments; they provide a service and send out billing. However, much of the community SHFAD serves is insured through Medicare and Medicaid, and the costs incurred through those patients are federally required to be written off.

“We are only recovering about 20-30% of the bills that we issue,” Tyler said. “That’s about a 70-80% write-off across the board.”

At some point, the community will be faced with somehow subsidizing the ambulance service, but that’s why the wildfire program plays an important role in supplementing an unsustainable EMS system.

“I live in this community, I don’t like paying any more taxes, money is tight for everybody,” he said, “but I think the taxpayer gets a lot of good work and good equipment out of this, as well as supporting the problem-solving the fire district has put into it, and not just going and asking them to double their tax burdens. We’re solving issues, and we’re asking for a 10-cent per $1,000 increase for that.”