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Fire districts continue to discuss joint operations

Columbia River Fire and Rescue and Scappoose Fire District explain how joint operations could work

Discussions between Columbia River Fire and Rescue and the Scappoose Fire District continue as the districts explore the specifics of formalizing a more in-depth working relationship.

The two fire districts have met to discuss the possibility of sharing a joint fire chief and five division chiefs through an intergovernmental agreement, known as an IGA.

During the two districts’ regular meetings last Tuesday and Thursday, April 12 and 14, board members discussed the plan’s specifics. On Thursday, Scappoose Fire District board President David Grant explained that the two-year agreement, which also includes a 90-day opt out period, would only be temporary.

“If at the end we don’t think it’s a good idea, we don’t have to do it anymore,” Grant told the board and audience members.

The districts are aiming to have an agreement in place by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, but no final decisions have been made at this point.

Cheryl Engstrom, the public information officer for Scappoose Fire District, said she received five phone calls last week prior to the meeting from individuals who wanted to vote against a merger — something the two districts are not considering.

Talks between the two districts have been occurring for several weeks about how to share upper-level management and what economies of scale would result from the relationship.

One person at the SFD district meeting voiced concern that an IGA “puts one foot in the door” in moving the districts closer to a merger.

Grant disagreed.

“No, it’s not. It’s situational, and we want to try and use our people in a better manner and try in the long run to save a little bit of money, and also get better service out of the two departments,” he said.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Columbia River Fire and Rescue and Scappoose Fire District crews respond to a car crash on Highway 30 in March. The two fire districts often assist each other on major calls for fires and car crashes. CRFR Fire Chief Jay Tappan said a merger is a much more politically motivated move than what is currently being discussed. A merger, he said, would require a public vote and would change tax rates for all individuals in the two fire districts.

CRFR board President Mark Kreutzer said the two fire boards owe it to residents to at least discuss the possibility of combining forces.

“If nothing comes about from it, that’s fine, but we at least have to talk about it, put it out on the table, and [do] the proverbial, ‘throw the mud on the wall and see what sticks,’” Kreutzer said. “I think that’s what we have to do. We have a fiduciary responsibility to our citizens to look at different ways we can be efficient.”

It is common for fire districts to enter into IGAs to utilize resources, Kreutzer said. Fire districts, such as what occurred between Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue and the city of West Linn Fire Department, entered into IGAs to share personnel. That arrangment ultimately led to a merger between the districts in 2004.

Other fire districts, such as Forest Grove Fire and Rescue, have worked with the Cornelius Fire Department and Gaston Fire Department through IGAs, but have remained separate entities.

A joint press release from CRFR and SFD Friday, April 15, sought

to explain the needs of both districts.

“As both communities continue to grow both fire districts are seeing an approximate 8-10% growth in request for emergency service each year,” the press release stated. “With limited funding it continues to put a strain on emergency services. We are trying to become more creative in looking for solutions to doing more with fewer resources.”

Currently, both agencies employ one division chief each; SFD has open positions for two and CRFR has open positions for three. CRFR is now in the process of reviewing 10 division chief applications.

Both boards have funding allocated for those positions, Tappan said.

Ideally, Tappan said, the two districts would hire five full-time division chiefs to oversee operations, emergency medical services, training, logistics and maintenance, and fire marshall and fire prevention duties.

Where the districts save fiscally is at the fire chief level, Tappan said. Most likely, the two fire districts will pay a percentage of the salaries for the joint fire chief and the division chiefs.

The fire chief would be responsible for overseeing administrative staff in Scappoose and St. Helens offices and all division chiefs.

Positions below division chief would ultimately remain the same, Tappan said.