Volunteer firefighters fail to back up former PIOs claims of discontent

Weeks of rumors about discontent among Gaston's volunteer firefighters ended Monday night.

But talk is still circulating about statements made by the Gaston Rural Fire District's former Public Information Officer.

Monday, a month after former PIO Ken Bilderback formally complained that the GRFD's administration was not meeting volunteer firefighters' needs, the volunteers publicly reaffirmed their support for the Gaston fire department.

Assistant Chief of Volunteers Jerry Hoodenpyl addressed the GRFD board on behalf of the volunteers, presenting a letter, which Hoodenpyl said was signed by all 26 volunteers and paid staff.

"Our commitment to the Board of Directors and the Fire Chief are unwavering," read the letter.

Bilderback, whose PIO services were on a volunteer basis, said, "I think there are issues that need to be addressed, but I gave the system every opportunity to work."

At a Monday night meeting, the GRFD board announced in a written statement that the investigation undertaken by Special Districts Association of Oregon (SDAO) into Bilderback's complaints was complete and no further action was required.

On April 1, Bilderback resigned from his volunteer positions as the GRFD Public Information Officer and Gaston Volunteer Fire Department board member. On April 4 and 6, Bilderback sent two separate letters of complaint to the GRFD.

Although neither Bilderback nor the district would release those letters, Bilderback said his complaints centered on his belief that the needs of the volunteers were not being met, and that this was the source of a growing “animosity” between himself and Fire Chief Roger Mesenbrink.

Bilderback said he does not have a problem with potential consolidation efforts between the GRFD and the Banks Fire Department, but said he felt the volunteers were not being considered during informal discussions.

Bilderback said he also felt the time commitment required for training made it almost impossible for volunteers to continue serving -- not just in Gaston but in all districts -- and the volunteers shouldn’t have to raise and use so much of their own money for equipment.

“The district that controls the money has a disproportionate amount of power over the people who dedicate their lives to serving others,” Bilderback said. “I felt like I was no longer an effective spokesman for our volunteers. I wasn’t able to create the level of discussion and change I wanted to.”

On April 12, SDAO’s Bill Anderson told Bilderback SDAO was investigating his complaints.

With the investigation completed, Mesenbrink said he was ready to move on.

Bilderback had claimed morale at the fire department was “not good,” and said he feared retaliation from fire district administrators against himself and volunteers for speaking out about concerns.

But the letter read by Hoodenpyl Monday dovetailed with the investigation's conclusion.

“As the volunteers dealt with speculation, media coverage, interviews, and other concerns, one thing has not changed, our commitment and dedication to the citizens of our district, our Fire Chief, and our Board of Directors," Hoodenpyl read. "There has never been pressure or demand to purchase materials or equipment. Fundraising is done by the volunteers to assist with the programs and functions that are provided us…all at the pleasure of the Volunteer Firefighters Association…We understand by committing to provide the service to our community that continued education for both EMT and EMR certification and ongoing training in all aspects of firefighting, structural, wildland, and operation of Fire Department equipment must be done.”

“We’re happy as can be,” Hoodenpyl said after the meeting. “We don’t have to do anything that anyone else in other districts don’t have to do.”

When told of the letter, Bilderback emphasized his independent role. “As I've said all along, I wasn't speaking for anyone but me. I’m leaving with many lasting friendships and much respect for volunteers and paid firefighters,” he said. The volunteers “are the most incredible people I’ve ever met.”

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