Hail to the chief

Longtime firefighter Norm Whiteley is leaving the job he loves
by: photo by DAVID STROUP, Norm Whiteley

After 34 years in the fire service, Clackamas County Fire District #1 Chief Norm Whiteley has decided that 'it's been long enough' and is - somewhat reluctantly - retiring from the job that's enthralled him since he was a teenager.

'I love the job,' he said. 'But after 34 years, it's time to step aside and let someone else have that challenge.'

Assistant Chief Ed Kirchhoffer will be taking over the top position in the district - and tackling the issues of growth, stability and funding that Whiteley has wrestled with for three years. Whiteley, meanwhile, is looking forward to time off with his family - but sitting in his office amidst packing for the move, he also seems a bit wistful about leaving the district.

'Seldom do you get a chance to do something you've wanted to do since you were a kid - and to get to do it all.

'I think I've been blessed,' he said, 'to be able to fill virtually every position in this organization in my career.'

Whiteley said he isn't going anywhere - he lives south of Oregon City - and he doesn't have any big plans after retirement beyond riding his Harley, spending some time with his grandson and perhaps catching up on a few things he's never gotten around to doing.

'I haven't done much overseas travel at all,' he said. 'I'd kind of like to go to Europe… it's a busy job you get tied up in.'

Through the years

He's been tied up in that job for more than two-thirds of his life.

Whiteley started as a volunteer firefighter with the Beavercreek Volunteer Fire Department at the age of 16. 'I was still in high school,' he said, 'and I really just enjoyed it - I wanted to be a firefighter.

'I moved into the Oregon City Fire Department at age 18,' he continued. 'I became the resident sleeper there for three years - you live at the station.'

That was the old station on 7th Street, across from the Carnegie Center. 'During that time I attended Clackamas and Portland Community College to further my education.'

That education was towards one goal: In 1976 he started a career as a full-time firefighter with what was then known as Clackamas County Fire District #54, serving rural areas including Redland and Holcomb.

'Things were a lot smaller then,' he said. 'Two-person engine companies… when I was hired we had 15 line firefighters.'

Today, Clackamas County Fire District #1 has over 160. 'It's a big change over the years.'

In the early days - before the series of mergers that created the modern CCFD #1 - firefighters didn't have the same opportunities for training that they enjoy today. 'We really didn't have a fire prevention division or a training division,' he said. 'A lot of it was on-the-job training.'

Another big change was on the way in those days: 'It was the beginning of the paramedic program and EMS [Emergency Medical Services] in the fire service - and it's come so far.

Today, he said, they have 'the ability to make a difference - to get there with full paramedic services.' He said having ALS - Advanced Life Support - available with all of their companies 'makes a huge difference, I believe.'

Back then, he recalls, 'you could have a structure fire, and six of us would show up. Today we try to put 15 people on the scene in the first 10 minutes.'

Today, he said, there's a lot more emphasis on safety through improvements in communication and planning for fires.

'In the old days we spent a lot of time at the station, doing house chores or maintenance.'

Today, he said, firefighters hardly ever just sit around the station, waiting; 'we're doing inspections, pre-fire planning, drilling - or covering so that someone else can drill. We have fitness programs, health and wellness programs, all those things we didn't have years ago.

'It's a totally different thing - and it's all for the good.'

Years of change

Whiteley was with the district through the series of mergers that made CCFD #1 what it is today. 'I stayed with the department through a number of years and a number of mergers,' he recalled. The first, he said, was in 1989, then in 1991, '93, '96 - each time melding two different organizations into one.

'It's always a big challenge to bring departments together,' he said.

But he believes that ultimately the string of mergers was necessary.

'There's always a funding challenge,' he said. 'We just could not afford the duplication of services that all of those small agencies were experiencing.'

The combined fire services could eliminate some of the overhead they were paying.

'I think that's good government,' he said. 'They need to keep looking at that in other places.

'Bigger is not always better,' he said, 'but we were able to combine all of the resources available and eliminate some of that overhead.'

He said it's a good thing the mergers didn't happen all at once; with the individual reorganizations spread out through the late 1980s and early 1990s, people had time to adjust to each step. 'You always have to adapt when different services come together,' he said.

In those years with the district he's been a line officer, battalion officer, training officer, fire marshal and deputy chief - and finally chief for the past three years. He said it's been like being able to live out his dream.

'People would ask me if there's anything else I would want to do - there's nothing else,' he said. 'It's like a family… sometimes you have a hard time thinking about leaving… it just seems like the time.'

Mergers and growth

Whiteley said the mergers and the emergence of EMS as a large part of firefighters' mission have been the biggest changes he's seen in his 34 years with the district; as chief he's faced his own challenges. The district board challenged him to raise morale, to stabilize funding and to place a new emphasis on safety and survival.

Today, he said, 'I'd say morale is high - we're an excellent organization. I've had tremendous support in these three years.'

Finding stable funding sources has been an ongoing challenge. The county recently chose to end the Urban Renewal District for the Clackamas industrial area; with the Urban Renewal District in place, CCFD #1 was providing fire service from the area but receiving no revenue from it. Whiteley said the system 'builds an infrastructure for growth - but it doesn't build an infrastructure for public safety.'

Another Urban Renewal District at Clackamas Town Center is slated to end, and Whiteley said 'that'll be a challenge - to make sure that happens.'

Despite clashes over the districts, he said, 'we're working with the county - that's the big challenge, to continually work together to find funding mechanisms for growth.'

Looking ahead for CCFD #1, he said, 'I see the organization as being a continuing leader in fire service. They're an accredited agency, and they're in good financial condition.'

He said the district is building a new station at SE 172nd, and is increasing staffing at the Holcomb station.

'Everything's going well - but we still have a challenge ahead with the Oregon City contract… but we can meet that challenge, and Oregon City's a good partner, we just have to work out the financial aspects.

'The fire district is in great shape, and it will be in good hands,' he said. 'It's a great organization to work for - and I see nothing down the road but great things.'