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Firefighters make changes to meet challenges

Lake Oswego Fire Department has had to change with the times
by: Cliff Newell, Brian McVicker, left, a veteran with 26 years of service in the Lake Oswego Fire Department, and Ron Baker are members of the Dive Rescue Team. This is an aspect of LOFD service that has received increased emphasis in recent years.

It is not your grandfather's fire department. Or even your father's.

Romantic scenes from the past simply don't apply when it comes to describing the current Lake Oswego Fire Department.

Public perception of firefighters has drastically improved over the years, especially since the awesome sacrifice they made during the crisis of 9-11. Yet the way people view the day-to-day work of the men and women who battle fires and perform rescues has not kept pace with changes firefighters have been forced to make over the past 25 years.

'We don't sit around the firehouse playing cards all day,' joked Battalion Chief Brad Loehner.

They also don't rush hell-bent-for-leather into burning houses to put out fires and rescue the old lady and her cat.

Maybe things are less dramatic now, but these days Lake Oswego firefighters are vastly better prepared to deal with a crisis large or small. Last year Lake Oswego firefighters answered more than 3,500 calls, nearly 10 a day, and that average shoots up to 25 to 30 calls a day during wintertime.

Firefighters have had to become better because of the changing nature of fires themselves, the ever-increasing emphasis on rescue work, and the looming possibility of terrorist threats.

'We keep turning up the notches in preparation,' said Deputy Fire Marshal Gert Zoutendijk. 'We've got to in order to keep up safety.'

On the matter of change, Lake Oswego has a number of firemen who can speak with great authority. Lt. Brian McVicker has been on the squad for 26 years. Driver-engineer Wayne Picschel is a veteran of 18 years. Loehner has 22 years of service.

And change is good, for the most part. For instance, in 1980 McVicker had to take a pay cut when he left his job at a warehouse to join the Lake Oswego fire force.

'Now the pay is up there,' McVicker said. 'It's a great job.'

Yet ever-rising expectations and changing conditions put a heavy price on change that goes way beyond the value placed on a firefighter:

n Rescues

A much larger proportion of firefighter service is now devoted to rescue operations; not just in fires for medical emergencies and water accidents. It can be as dramatic as a boat capsizing on Lake Oswego or as simply as a senior citizen slipping and falling at an assisted living center.

'The level of EMS (emergency medical service) is incredibly huge,' McVicker said. 'In 1980 the city provided basic EMS service.'

Now the city provides full ALS (advanced life support) service, and there is always a paramedic on an engine or firetruck. Instead of one firefighter having a portable radio, today all personnel carry personal radios on an assignment.

n Equipment

When it comes to equipment for firefighters it's out with the steel, out with the brass, and in with the new.

'The reliability of the apparatus is much higher now,' Picschel said. 'Everything now is stronger but lighter. We have 5-inch hoses now instead of the old cotton jacket 3-inch hoses.'

'Instead of the steel tanks we've got an aluminum composite. Instead of brass, appliances made out of high tech alloys that are half the weight.'

In 1980, McVicker said, 'The idea of computers were a long way off.' Today, engines have mobile data terminals.

n Cooperation

A quarter century ago, combined operations by fire departments were pretty much unheard of. Today, cooperation is a matter of course.

'It used to be rare to have anyone from another department fighting a fire,' McVicker said. 'You just did what you had to do. Now we have more cooperation. We have mutual aid agreements in place.'

'A big reason for this is that departments have grown along with the populations,' Loehner said. 'It's all in the effort to provide better service for city customers and citizens.'

If most change is hugely beneficial, it is because it has to be. Improvement in equipment and cooperation has had to rise to meet the changing nature of fires in new buildings.

'Builders are not ignoring the fire aspect,' Zoutendijk said.

'A lot of the changes are good,' McVicker said. 'The sheet rock, fire blocking and sheer construction are all much better.'

Yet the new materials used in building today do not burn like the old materials. Lightweight construction that uses blended materials emit different kinds of fire, gas and smoke, which are more volatile and liable to spread out of control. And also more dangerous to firefighters. Fire integrity can 'go down the tubes.'

'Building houses is cost driven, just like everything,' Zoutendijk said. 'If people can save $20,000, most of them are going to take that route.'

'The gasses are worse,' Picschel said. 'All of the different building materials make different forms of heat.'

'Things aren't getting any better,' Zoutendijk said. 'That is why equipment has to be better.'

Even more important are the new safety procedures.

'Thirty years ago a firefighter thought nothing of running into a burning building,' Loehner said.

McVicker added, 'You would go in and hope nobody got hurt.

'You can't do that now. Not only because of our own initiatives but because it's mandated.'

'There's a lot more accountability,' Picschel said. 'You can't even compare the way things are now to then.'

Firefighters are still heroic, but their safety is put at a premium. The command structure requires the two-in, two-out rule, which means that if two firefighters go into a structure, two equally trained firefighters must be posted just outside.

'I can't deviate from that,' Loehner said.

In larger fires, there is strict tracking of firefighters. Firefighters now must know exactly who is on what floor.

Zoutendijk said, 'If something goes wrong they can check the clipboard and know if someone is missing right away.'

Lake Oswego firefighters have some obstacles not encountered by emergency workers in other cities, like a big lake right in the middle of town.

'That creates issues for us on response time,' Loehner said. 'I guess they could build a big, nasty suspension bridge.'

Like all cities, Lake Oswego has budget limitations, which is why it has three firefighters on an engine instead of four.

'Budgets being what they are, we have to make it work,' Loehner said. 'We are able to get the job done as safely and efficiently as possible given our manpower.'

Aside from that, the Lake Oswego firefighters are extremely impressed with the support they receive from the city. They feel they are staying ahead of the curve.

McVicker, the 26-year veteran, said, 'The city has provided us much better resources and training.'

It helps to have a sympathetic public. There are few people who now think that firemen hold non-stop check tournaments. Instead, they are likely to know they hold non-stop extensive training when they're not making calls.

And with memories of the 343 firefighters who lost their lives during 9-11 still extremely strong, public appreciation of firefighters could be at an all-time high.

'That put fire services in a spotlight and opened eyes to what we do,' Zoutendijk said.

'And what we're willing to do,' Loehner said.