One year in, Scappoose and St. Helens fire agencies reflect on partnership
One year into a two-year agreement between Columbia River Fire and Rescue and Scappoose Fire District to share a fire chief and other top officers, staff in the agency are eager to progress — but the long-term future of a working relationship between the two districts remains undetermined.
In June 2016, the CRFR and SFD boards of directors approved an intergovernmental agreement, or IGA, that united the two fire districts under the leadership of one fire chief and five division chiefs. The agreement came at a time when both agencies were experiencing staffing shortages, especially at the senior level. SFD had a division chief role unfilled, CRFR had two division chief roles unfilled, and the longtime CRFR fire chief was retiring in a month.
Just over a year later, staff are reflecting on what has worked with the IGA that went into effect July 1, 2016, what hasn't, and where the partnership will go from here.
Fire Chief Mike Greisen said the most positive aspect has been greater efficiencies in emergency services and stronger working relationships between the two fire agencies. With one training officer working with all firefighting staff, for example, it has become easier to streamline how both operations function.
In some ways the IGA partnership has also lightened the workload for division chiefs when they serve as an on-duty officer. On-duty officers can be called to major fires or other emergency incidents during hours when they are not regularly scheduled. Having the workload spread amongst five division chiefs has helped improve their work-life balance, Greisen explained.
Cheryl Engstrom, the public information officer for SFD, said Scappoose divisions chiefs were exhausted by their workloads previously, when two people were juggling the work of three.
Prior to the IGA, Jennifer Motherway, a volunteer coordinator, worked for both fire agencies, providing her unique insight into how the partnership works. In her experience, training opportunities and cohesion between career and volunteer firefighters has been the biggest success thus far.
In many ways, Engstrom said, the IGA has positively progressed. Reflecting on the agreement that united the two fire districts, she said they have met many of their goals over the past year.
There have been challenges, however. The partnership has placed a heavier burden on staff in unexpected ways, Engstrom explained. Working in two separate locations, Greisen often needs to split his time daily between Scappoose and St. Helens. Both agencies are still separate entities, bringing about all that implies: separate and different operating procedures, staff management systems, call log systems and more.
Jeff Pricher, who now serves as the fire marshal, said his workload for that position has been unexpectedly high. Between December and July he worked on more than 400 projects involving development and fire inspections with city staff, private businesses, county officials and others.
"No one could have predicted how much work the fire marshal position would be," Engstrom said.
Previously, SFD did not employ a fire marshal and former CRFR Fire Chief Jay Tappan only performed the duties one day a week. When the position was filled, there was simply a lack of knowledge about how the countywide duties fell to the fire marshal, Pricher said.
There is also a question of public perception. Engstrom explained that the public still largely perceives the agreement between to the two agencies as a merger, or, at the least, a precursor to a future merger.
Several staff members pushed back on that perception, however. The current partnership is simply two agencies sharing joint staff in key positions, they explained.
Pricher and Engstrom also see a lack of communication with the public about behind-the scenes work as an area that needs to be improved. While staff may be working diligently on initiatives like new training programs and other protocols that ultimately benefit the public, those efforts are not commonly communicated with residents and businesses in the service districts, she said.
Hans Feige, the current CRFR board chair, said it's hard to determine what comes next, and said questions about future actions are ahead of the curve considering the two boards of directors for SFD and CRFR have yet to discuss those options.
The two boards are planning a joint meeting in September to discuss what they want to see happen over the next year, as well as what might happen in June 2018 when the IGA concludes.
Greisen said that while there have not been any discussions about a merger, conversations could occur to determine if there is potential for other areas to overlap. An oversight committee comprised of two board members from each district have been meeting on a semi-regular basis, but communications between the two full boards have yet to take place.
CRFR board member Mark Kreutzer pointed out that fire districts can enter into myriad partnerships, including IGAs, fire authority districts or full mergers, in an effort to combine resources.
"This is year two. We understand a lot more and we want to use our momentum to move forward," Engstrom said.