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New firefighters to the rescue as calls for help increase


Departments calls have shot up, but staff to field them has not--until now

Forest Grove Fire & Rescue will hire two new firefighters in 2013, including longtime Forest Grove resident Chad Toomey, bringing the department to its highest staffing level ever and improving its response time and its capacity to cover multiple calls.

It’s a good time for a staffing boost. According to Fire Chief Michael Kinkade, 2012 marked the station's highest number of annual calls ever: 3,089. That's up 11 percent from the previous year (2,789) and nearly 25 percent from the 2,497 calls received in 2006.

But while the department’s calls have increased 25 percent over the past seven years, its official firefighter staffing — five per shift — has not.

Toomey begins work Jan. 14, bringing the department’s overall staff level to 20.5. Toomey’s position opened when the department received a four-year federal grant for a volunteer coordinator. Lt. Tad Buckingham took that job in October and the ensuing shuffle to fill Buckingham’s position left a line firefighter position open.

Lebanon native

Toomey, a Pacific University graduate who has been running the school’s outdoor recreation program, was one of more than 150 applicants. A volunteer firefighter since 2007, Toomey is well-respected by both career and volunteer firefighters, Kinkade said. Coincidentally, Toomey grew up in Lebanon, where Kinkade lived and worked before moving to Forest Grove.

“His mom still runs a beauty parlor there,” said Kinkade, who biked past it on a recent visit.

The second position will be funded by a two-year federal grant and will fill the captain slot that Dave Nemeyer held while Bill Bench served as Fire Marshal. The position has been vacant since 2009, when Bench retired and Nemeyer became marshal. It should be filled by March, Nemeyer said, and will focus primarily on inspections, which have been “much decreased” since the position went vacant, he said.

That will bring the department’s overall staff to 21.5, including 20 full-time firefighters, although Kinkade and his two division chiefs do not generally answer calls because they are busy with management responsibilities. Though not on the shift rotation schedule, the new captain, like Buckingham, will be available to answer calls if necessary.

Staffing levels determine which vehicles can respond to a call and how quickly. It takes three firefighters to staff an engine and two to staff a medical rescue vehicle. The department’s current average of five full-time firefighters per shift is usually enough to send both those vehicles out, or more when interns or volunteers are on site.

But shift staffing frequently drops due to health problems or vacation time, especially during the summer, Kinkade said. Sometimes it goes as low as three firefighters per shift. That's when interns and volunteers can be crucial.

The department has about 45 volunteers and will get more after applicants go through a training academy this spring, Nemeyer said. Thanks to the new volunteer coordinator position, the academy should be well attended. Tad Buckingham has already brought in 30 new applicants.

To apply for a volunteer or internship position with Forest Grove Fire & Rescue, call Buckingham at 503-992-3195.