In Forest Grove and Cornelius, grants buy what taxpayer money doesnt have to

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Fire Chief Michael Kinkade uses a digital projector attached to his iPad to give presentations and strategize with Forest Grove firefighters.Forest Grove Fire & Rescue is hiring.

In a world where local governments are still reeling from the effects of the Great Recession, that’s news.

But the real news is why the department is looking for a new employee. It’s not because Forest Grove voters passed a property tax levy in May (though the levy will shore up finances for the whole of the city). It’s because the department scored a $428,000, four-year grant to fund a new officer position at the fire department.

The new position, an officer-level position as a volunteer coordinator, is the first new position at the department since voters passed the city’s operating levy in 2003.

Tad Buckingham, a B Shift Lieutenant who has worked for FGF&R since 1996, has already been selected as the new volunteer coordinator. The department is now undergoing a search to identify who will fill the hole he leaves in the rank-and-file of the department.

Buckingham will oversee the department’s efforts to convince community members to join the ranks of paid firefighters on calls.

“This isn’t just a firefighter, this is somebody that can go on calls and help a lot but this is somebody that is purely dedicated. His primary directive is recruiting and training volunteers,” said Forest Grove Fire Marshal David NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Forest Grove firefighters use automatic navigation and mapping software in their everyday duties.

Developing the ranks of volunteer recruits is paramount in the fire service, which has seen a tremendous shift over the last 20 years in demographics and circumstances that put pressure on its bottom line and operations.

Two decades ago, the fire department’s main role was to fight fires. Most departments like FGF&R, situated at the edge of urban environments, could rely on a crew of community volunteers to back up the department’s paid firefighters when things got hairy.

But today, things are different. Calls for emergency medical services make up the bulk of fire department 911 calls and the department’s volunteers are more likely to be young and transient, looking for permanent jobs.

Those realities are taxing the fire service nationwide, but in Forest Grove and Cornelius, a prodigious grant-writing effort has buttressed the department’s operations. And the latest grant will help train volunteers for the challenges of 21st Century firefighting.

“Sending a 22-year-old without adequate training crawling into a burning structure — it’s high risk,” said Forest Grove Fire Chief Michael Kinkade. “How many 20-year-olds know how to drive a stick-shift or have basic mechanical skills?”

Buckingham’s work will help overcome the natural shortcomings of youngsters raised on Xbox and microwave ovens instead of videotapes and wood stoves. In earlier decades, the department could rely on teens to have skills with a chainsaw or to know how to troubleshoot a vehicle. Not so much anymore.

But it’s another grant that will streamline the training of new recruits to the department. Last year FGF&R received a $425,000 federal grant to purchase a fire-training simulator.

While it looks like a big red dumpster, the simulator is packed with technology that allows trainers to set up most scenarios that firefighters would face in a live fire situation.

Regardless how well intentioned someone is, they won’t be sent into a structure fire until they know what they’re doing — so all volunteers need training.

Before the simulator showed up, the department had to send new recruits to Astoria or wait for someone to donate a house that could be burned down to provide a training ground.

Now, recruits can train in the department’s back yard.

“Since 9/11 there’s been an increase in the grants available,” Kinkade said.

In 2011 alone, Forest Grove Fire & Rescue received $488,900 in grants. The Cornelius Fire Department, where Kinkade is also chief, received $780,777.

The grants range from whoppers — such as the one that bought the fire simulator — to a $624,777 grant that funded the Cornelius Fire Department’s intern program, to smaller grants that bought equipment.

With each grant come requirements to report back to the funding agency the use of the money and to track the grant’s success.

“It ain’t free,” Kinkade said. “There’s a lot of work that goes into it.”

Still, the grant effort has helped the department expand its services and replace its equipment without direct funding from local taxpayers. Some equipment, like the fire simulator, wouldn’t be purchased without grant money. But other equipment, like chainsaws paid for by the Siletz Tribal Charitable Contribution Fund, would have been bought one way or another.

Paying for them with grant money frees up city money for other purposes.

Kinkade and three other fire department employees — Sharon Cox, Ian O’Connor and Marc Reckmann of Cornelius Fire — form the base of the two agencies’ grant-writing team.

Cox compiles all the data needed for grant applications, Reckmann and Kinkade write the narrative of the grants and O’Connor oversees the financial reporting for the grant after it’s awarded to the department.

Kinkade said Reckmann is one of the most successful grant writers in Oregon and that he and the other folks involved in grant writing have turned the two departments into a grant-winning powerhouse.

“You get all sorts of phone calls from other departments,” O’Connor said.

He hopes that private grants, like those from the Siletz fund, can help make up for reduced federal funding in the years to come.

“There’s a lot of money out there. You just have to look for it,” O’Connor said.

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