Fire departments combine to set the pace

Boring, Clackamas agencies begin a strategy others might duplicate
by: Contributed photo Volunteer members of the newly formed Boring-Clackamas Volunteer Firefighters Association stand united in front of the Boring training center. Pictured from Boring are Chris Bell, Tyler Hill, Levi Favara, Rick Coyle and Tera Vandewiele, and from Clackamas are J.J. Hanna, Tasia Wagner, Steve Montez and Jessica Gale.

In a groundbreaking move, the Boring and Clackamas fire districts have reached a unique agreement to form a strategic partnership likely to be used as a model for other fire districts.

The two agencies, which protect nearly 270 square miles of Oregon's urban and rural areas, are merging their volunteer firefighter groups - forming the largest volunteer association in the Western United States, according to Deputy Fire Chief Jim Syring of Clackamas and Division Chief George Eisert of Boring.

The Boring volunteer group, which is the largest in the state with 90 volunteers, and Clackamas, which is third largest in the state, will merge to form a volunteer team of 168 men and women trained to provide the best customer service in the area, according to Eisert.

That's a big benefit to residents of both districts, Eisert said, because response times can be reduced and a second group of trained personnel can be ready to roll if another call comes in while the first engine is out.

'This (sharing of volunteers) will improve customer service,' Eisert said. 'Back in the day, a volunteer would drive to the station from his house, get in the rig and drive back. By putting volunteers in the stations, we'll be shortening their dispatch time.'

The key is in numbers. With so many more volunteers, Boring's three stations and Clackamas' 17 stations will seldom be empty when a call comes in. Volunteers will staff four stations exclusively and will assist at another, Syring said.

The move also saves the 24/7 configuration of the Pleasant Valley station on 172nd Avenue. In the new configuration at Pleasant Valley, Clackamas will take two 24-hour shifts and Boring will fill one shift.

To manage the large volunteer association, Boring is supplying a full-time volunteer coordinator (Steve Deters) while Clackamas is providing a full-time administrative assistant (Kasey Delair). Both are doing business from their offices at the Pleasant Valley Station (between Happy Valley and Damascus).

Both Eisert and Syring say this move will save the districts money at a time when expenses are growing.

Eisert said revenues are increasing between 2.5 and 2.9 percent per year, but expenses are rising about 6 percent.

Syring said the 'hundreds of thousands of dollars of savings' will occur when they eliminate duplication, take advantage of lower costs with stronger buying power and conduct joint activities such as training, recruiting and academy. Money also will be saved by sharing equipment, such as the state-of-the-art information technology that Clackamas will share with Boring and the lower workmen's comp insurance rates Boring will share with Clackamas.

The combination of districts is not just beneficial for residents of the area and the financial stability of the districts, but also for the volunteers. To meet training requirements, Boring volunteers have had to arrange their schedules to be available for one of only four training sessions per week and Clackamas offered training only on three mornings a week. But now there are 10 training drills each week for the large group of volunteers.

In addition, Boring volunteers can take advantage of joint programs in the following areas: wellness, civil service commission, information technology, testing, physician adviser, training, recruiting, academy and emergency management.

Two of the features well liked by the volunteers, Syring said, include the fact more all-volunteer stations are available for duty shifts and there are two training centers ready to help volunteers meet their requirements.

'We're seeing a broader perspective (in the sharing of facilities),' Syring said. 'The joint training is huge. We go on calls together already. Now we're able to train together more often than we did before.'

Volunteers are now being asked to staff five duty shifts a month at the all-volunteer stations, and that means most of the volunteer stations will be staffed, waiting for a call - especially at night.

Syring described the move toward volunteers doing duty shifts as a new trend across the nation. Instead of volunteers being called from home, lengthening the response times, they arrange their duty shifts to avoid impacts on their families - and they become immediately available because they are already at the station.

'This is giving volunteers chances to serve (more often),' Syring said, 'and giving the community a higher level of service.'

Using the new combined website, volunteers from both districts can sign up for duty at various events this summer, choosing those close to their home or ones that fit their family's schedule.

'The first event that came up (after the agreement was signed),' Syring said, 'was Happy Valley's Fourth of July event. Between the two districts, we had 14 volunteers. We've never had that many before.'

The changeover will take a number of months, just like it took many months to work out the details of the agreement.

'Over the months of July, August and September, there's a massive amount of training that will be done,' Syring said. 'By November the IT system (that connects to the Clackamas IT system) will be installed in Boring.'

And by January, the switch should be complete. The Clackamas volunteer association and its board will dissolve, and the Boring association will absorb the displaced members from Clackamas. Initially, the group will be called the Boring-Clackamas Volunteer Firefighters Association, but Syring said in the future it is likely to change its name.