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Archive for June, 2011

Last March, when the River Avenue Line-X store in Eugene had a massive chemical fire trucks from the nearby Santa Clara Volunteer Fire Station were among the first responders.  The size of the blaze would eventually require response from both the Eugene and Springfield fire departments, and fire stations from Goshen to Junction City went to high alert to respond to any calls from the districts whose firefighters were occupied with battling the blaze.

The leaking regulator on this air tank will prevent it from being used in event of a fire.

Situations like this can be particularly hard on volunteer stations, which typically have only a small number of firefighters available at any time.  Aaron Gibbens, a volunteer at the Goshen Fire Station with more than 30 years of experience in the fire service, says that mutual aid calls have gone up recently.  “Last month a neighboring department didn’t have the people to put a rescue rig out for a medical call and we ended up responding two miles outside of our district, as the only response unit.  So that’s kind of scary because in that situation, there went two thirds of our available volunteers.”

Responding to calls outside of their home districts can stretch many volunteer stations thin, as many of them only have a small number of volunteers available at any given time.  Chris Anderson, the training officer for the Santa Clara Volunteer Fire District in North Eugene, says that the current economic climate can limit the ability of the station to find volunteers.  “With the economy people need to work more, so they have less time to volunteer.”

However, despite the budget cuts that many Oregon agencies face in the present economy, most volunteer fire stations in the state have so far managed to avoid drastic reductions in their budget.  However, recent increases in fuel prices and potential cuts to federal fire grants could stretch the stations’ budgets and limit the ability of stations in Oregon and across the country to replace worn-out equipment in the future.

Maintenence of a fire stations equipment is a large part of what keeps firefighters and EMTs effective.

“We don’t get a break because we drive firetrucks,” Gibbens says, “We pay the same price as everyone, so increases like the ones over the past year, it’s like there goes 30% of our budget.”

Fire stations across the country, including many Lane County volunteer stations, rely on federal grants to supplement their stagnant income, and these may be on the chopping blog as Washington scrambles to find ways to reduce the deficit. “A lot of volunteer departments depend on grants for equipment upgrades and personnel training, and as the federal reserves drop with the economy, so do the grants,” says Gibbens.

The Oregon Fire Chief’s Association currently has an open letter from its president Tay Robertson on their website, in which Robertson discusses proposals to cut the Department of Homeland Security’s FIRE and SAFER grant programs by more than half.  In the letter Robertson says “In past budget years, the fire service has managed to escape some of the deeper cuts; however, there is a sense this year may be a far tougher battle.”

Gibbens, who represents the greater Eugene-Springfield area in the Oregon Volunteer Firefighter’s Association, says that decreases in revenue would mean that stations must continue to use equipment that needs to be replaced.  “Typically, what winds up happening is deferred repairs and differed maintenance.  Equipment wears out. Eventually you reach a point where it’s not in the budget to affect the repairs.”

Without replacement and proper maintenance then the equipment that is necessary for firefighting and medical calls may be less effective and firefighters may be hindered in responding to emergency calls.  “Eventually,” Gibbens says, “you end up with equipment that doesn’t have the capability or the reliability to do the job.”

Gibbens also says that the current economic climate has been hard on many volunteer stations, which can limit their ability to train new volunteers.  “If we can’t put the training dollars together to get you that 8-10 weeks training then you don’t go inside that structure, which means you are squirting from the outside, which is only half as effective,” Gibbens says.  Firefighters, even volunteers, need a lot of training to be effective first responders and this usually represents a large investment in time and resources by the station.

Cuts to federal grants could end up harming volunteers the most, who often serve as a way to gain professional experience that can lead to a career in fire service.  People seeking a career can benefit by volunteering to gain experience, training and, at some stations, even a free place to live while in paramedic school.  Volunteers like this benefit the communities they serve because they often have more training and availability to respond to calls than volunteers who have careers outside of the fire service.

This Mohawk Valley Fire Department volunteer is being timed as he suits up in his breathing apparatus.

Jimmy Loverro, a live-in volunteer at the Goshen Station is one such firefighter.  In addition to the shifts that Loverro works for the volunteer station in exchange for lodgings, he has paramedic classes at Lane Community College, an internship with Springfield’s Fire Department and clinical duties at Sacred Heart’s RiverBend Medical Center.  He says that his combined duties take up what feels like “every hour that I’m awake.”  If the Goshen Station didn’t have the resources to keep live-in volunteers then Loverro would have a much harder time completing his training, and he would not be able to respond to as many calls for the volunteer station.

Anderson, of the Santa Clara Fire District in North Eugene, says that volunteers like Loverro are necessary for volunteer stations.  If federal grants are cut and volunteer stations are less able to dedicate the resources to train aspiring professional firefighters, then it may lead to reductions in the numbers of the highly skilled and motivated volunteers for stations in Oregon.

For right now, volunteer fire stations in Oregon are still able to effectively serve their communities, but Gibbens says that if one station develops problems then it can often affect other stations, such as in situations with the Line-X fire, when stations are called in to cover areas outside their own district.  “If I only have twelve guys then I can only count on half being able to show up at any given time, and that’s not enough, which means I end up calling in help from Oak Ridge or South Lane County, to tap into their resources and then their departments are spending dollars and man power to cover our loss.  It cycles out that way.”

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This weekend my sister ran the Newport Marathon, and she ran an amazing race and set a new PR of just over 3:12, a time fast enough to place her in 3rd overall for women.  My family and I were very proud of her amazing performance, something made all the more special by the fact that it was my sister’s birthday.

We decided to pause our party celebrating both events that afternoon to visit the awards ceremony.  The organizers had made some computer error and a few hundred of the slower runners times had not been entered yet, so the organizers went into “killing time mode” for the next hour and a half, instead of just telling everyone to come back later.  They had long impromptu speeches about the history of the race, showed of old race t shirts and raffled off trinkets no one wanted.  Worse, when the results did come in they kept pausing to raffle  off more stuff.

Making people wait around for your organization to get it’s act together in a poorly air conditioned basement on an 80 degree day is not good PR.  What should have been a fun celebration for the runners quickly turned into a grueling punishment for everyone involved.  If any common sense had been used at all, then the organizers would have realized that keeping people happy was more important than keeping everyone in the room.

The ultimate diss of the flubbed awards ceremony came at the end as I was leaving, as I heard more than one runner say they wouldn’t be back next year.

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