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Kirchhofer takes the reins

Ed Kirchhofer is thinking a lot about the future - that is his job. The incoming fire chief for Clackamas County Fire District #1, Kirchhofer replaced Norm Whiteley, who served for three years in the top job. Sworn in last week at the district's training center, the new chief laid out his agenda.

'Our biggest challenge is preparing the next generation of leaders for this organization,' he said. 'In virtually every division, we're facing a wave of retirements in the next five to seven years. Our challenge is to give that next generation the tools to succeed.

'We have some talented people - it's just a question of giving them the training to step into those roles when the time comes.'

Kirchhofer explained that it is important that the lieutenants and captains who are advancing up through the ranks see more than the view from the front seat of a fire engine. To this end, he has begun to explore the possibility of arranging internships with other public agencies, as well as private companies.

'By partnering with other organizations, we can prepare our people to perform at higher levels of leadership,' he said. 'Take Les Schwab, for example, they are renowned for their customer service. Kaiser Permanente has an excellent quality assurance program, and Metro has a tremendous planning staff.

'What I would see us doing is sending someone off to an agency or a company for a week or two, to study what works for them.'

He cited the fire department in Phoenix, Ariz., as a national model that CCFD #1 and other agencies aspire to emulate.

'Phoenix has benefited from having a progressive and dynamic fire chief - they are leaders and innovators in the fire service,' said Kirchhofer. 'They have a very good approach to customer service.'

That theme - customer service - surfaced again and again as the chief described his plans for the district.

'The challenge for any fire service is that people have a choice when they go to private industry - like choosing between UPS and FedEx,' he said. 'When people call 9-1-1, they don't get to choose who shows up. Therefore, it's our obligation, our duty - how dare we not provide anything but the best customer service possible.'

To the public, extinguishing fires and providing medical care may seem like the only services that the district would be expected to provide, but Kirchhofer views his mission in broader terms.

'Our job goes way beyond just putting fires out,' he said. 'We need to understand that for the people involved, this is a personal tragedy. In the midst of a smoke-filled environment, we need to find the album of family photographs or the mementos that cannot be replaced by an insurance company.

'Also, through the Clackamas Emergency Services Foundation, we empower all of our firefighters to provide immediate relief during an emergency - maybe that means getting a cab for someone who has just been in a car accident, or putting a family up in a hotel for a night after their house catches fire.'

He continued: 'I can't tell you how many times we've gone out to a house on a first aid call, and after they deal with that initial problem, the firefighters notice that there are no diapers in the home, and not a lot of food in the refrigerator. That crew will go out right then and come back with $100 worth of groceries.'

Beyond laying out a strategic vision for the district, Kirchhofer is addressing specific issues, such as meeting with representatives of C-Com, the county's emergency dispatch agency.

'I'm addressing issues of performance, governance and customer service with them,' he said.

The chief is also planning to adopt a new physical fitness standard for the district's firefighters, and is looking forward to the completion of Station 7 in Pleasant Valley.

'It's framed, and there's a roof on it, so it's coming along,' Kirchhofer said. 'Pleasant Valley is one of the most rapidly developing areas in the district, and it's served by both our agency and the Boring Fire Department, so we're looking at ways we can work together to provide maximum effectiveness and efficiency.'

A graduate of Oregon City High School, Kirchhofer is active in his church and local youth sports.

'I've coached softball, basketball and baseball - it's not that I'm any good, they just need somebody to stand behind the bench,' he said with a laugh. 'For six years in a row, I've led our church's youth group down to an orphanage and special needs school in Rancho Santa Marta, in Baja.

'We drive the whole way, and we bring along trailers full of tools and equipment. This year, we cleaned up a space that they hope to convert into a youth center someday.'

He joined the fire service in 1978, on the same day that his father retired as a captain.

'The important thing is to never stop trying to improve - to meet or exceed the expectations of our customers,' said Kirchhofer. 'The day we stop saying, 'We can do better' is the day the department needs to find a new chief.'