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Fire district promotes from within, recruits to fill positions

Columbia River Fire and Rescue hires two new division chiefs

Just nine days into a new intergovernmental agreement between two fire agencies, and Columbia River Fire and Rescue has two new division chiefs settling in and learning the ropes of their jobs.

Dave Coombs, a long-time CRFR firefighter and captain, and Ian O’Connor, a former division chief from Forest Grove Fire Department, took on the two newly structured division chief roles just days after the IGA went into effect on July 1.

   In June, an IGA was approved by the boards of directors for the Scappoose Fire District and CRFR that allows the two fire departments to operate under the supervision of one joint fire chief and five division chiefs, who remain employees of the district that hired them. With numerous upper-level management positions open at both districts, the purpose of the IGA is to eliminate certain redundancies across the districts and fill needed employment gaps.

Between SFD and CRFR, five division chiefs will oversee different responsibilities that fall under a division chief’s duties. Now, instead of one division chief being responsible for training and safety protocol, emergency medical services and operations responsibilities, the duties will be broken up.

On the CRFR side, Coombs will oversee emergency medical services, O’Connor will oversee safety and resource management, and Division Chief Eric Smythe will oversee operations. On the SFD side, Division Chief Jeff Pricher will oversee fire marshal duties, and the fifth division chief will oversee training.

The Scappoose district is still in the process of hiring for the final position, whose duties will be covered by Smythe for the time being.

Fire Chief Mike Greisen said the department will likely begin the search for a fifth division chief within a few weeks with the goal of hiring by early September.

    Both O’Connor and Coombs said they are looking forward to the challenge of working within the new organizational structure established by the IGA. O’Connor worked through two different IGAs while at Forest Grove, one with the Cornelius Fire Department and one with Gaston Rural Fire District. Establishing working relationships can present its own challenges, but creating a balance is possible, he explained.

“I’m sure there’s fears of, ‘Oh, they’re going to make us be like them,’ or vice versa, and how to meld those operations together isn’t really difficult, but you have to get all those personalities to be on the same page,” O’Connor said. “Fear of change is going to be the biggest challenge and that’s going to take time.”

Coombs said he believes expanding division chief positions will allow the fire districts to grow in areas that have been ignored in the past. In the 1990s, the district hired seven division chiefs and has slowly whittled that number down to two. By expanding CRFR’s capacity to three, and keeping the SFD at two, more responsibilities can be addressed.

Coombs, who also has a volunteer history with the Scappoose district, said he believes the partnership and the IGA will be a positive step forward.

“I already know a lot of those people and I think it’s going to be good for both districts because we’ll be able to specialize in areas and focus on specific things rather than being spread out too much,” he said.

Greisen said he has no concerns about how the two will fulfill their new duties given their combined experience.

“They’re great. They’ll be great,” Greisen said.

Ian O’Connor

New to the St. Helens area, O’Connor comes to CRFR with more than 20 years of experience in the industry. O’Connor has served as a division chief and interim fire chief for both the Forest Grove Fire Department and the Lewis and Clark Fire District in Astoria. He has also worked as a volunteer firefighter for Lewis and Clark.

After working with Forest Grove for 10 years primarily covering training and operations duties, O’Connor said he was ready to take on a new challenge and applied for the open position.

“I’ve been in the training world forever, so I was looking for something a little bit different,” O’Connor said.

Dave Coombs

Coombs began working with CRFR in 1994 after working as an EMT in Portland, a medic for Mercy Flights in Medford and a volunteer firefighter for Clackamas Fire District. During his years with the district he has served as a firefighter, lieutenant and captain, and has worked as a Scappoose Fire District volunteer firefighter for 12 years. Applying for the division chief position seemed like the next logical step for him, Coombs said.

“I’ve kind of worked all the ranks ... and each time as I got comfortable I was ready to look for a new challenge and this was great timing for me after having been a captain for a number of years,” Coombs said.