By editorial board • 

Fire service consolidation being driven by necessity

Fred Hertel, joint chief of the Sheridan and West Valley fire districts, recently authored a guest opinion headlined, “Not your father’s fire service.” And that, in a nutshell, explains why McMinnville, Amity, Carlton, Lafayette, Dayton and Dundee are beginning to explore creation of a cooperative firefighting force.

If they do connect in some fashion, they would be following the lead of Sheridan and Willamina, which may ultimately join Dallas-based Southwest Polk as well, and Newberg, which began contracting with Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue in 2016. Already, Carlton and Lafayette are sharing a fire chief, and Amity plans to begin contracting with McMinnville on July 1.

Further consolidation is virtually inevitable. So count us in full support of the process outlined by McMinnville Chief Rich Leipfert, aimed at determining what form such consolidation might take.

Traditionally, America’s agricultural heartland, and the rural communities serving as its supply centers, relied almost exclusively on volunteers. The nation’s urban centers earlier transitioned to paid professionals, but rural areas were able to make the original model continue working for them until recent times.

One challenge is a growing scarcity of volunteers.

Rural forces once relied largely on local farmers and shopkeepers, who could slip out on a moment’s notice. But agriculture, retailing and other elements of the economy have increasingly become the province of large enterprises based in distant locales, serving to limit the supply.

Another challenge is the expanding scope and complexity of the mission. We are increasingly demanding hazardous materials response, spill containment and cleanup, advanced life support, code enforcement and inspection, swift water and burning building rescue, automobile extrication, chemical fire suppression, wildland firefighting and more.

When a volunteer’s fire duties were limited to donning off-the-shelf gear and manning hoses — and his ambulance duties to driving the patient to the nearest hospital in a van — training and equipment needs were manageable. But it takes advanced training and highly specialized equipment today, and that puts a premium on paid professionals.

Other factors contribute, including duplicated accounting and management functions, increasingly complex dispatching and communication demands, grossly insufficient Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, rapidly escalating PERS outlays, limited levy and tax base support and exponentially expanding call volumes.

Similar forces are fueling consolidation of police operations. Newberg is now serving Dundee, and the sheriff’s office is now serving Sheridan, Willamina, Dayton, Lafayette and Amity.

Meanwhile, McMinnville is teaming up with Amity, Carlton and Lafayette on a joint water system to meet future needs.

Amity Fire Chief Bruce Hubbard, whose retirement paves the way for the McMinnville agreement, said, “It’s not sustainable any longer for small districts and departments to stand on their own.” He called it a “no-brainer, thanks to the cost savings.”

Hubbard concluded, “Amity doesn’t need an administrative staff.”

In truth, that applies to all Yamhill County’s smaller communities. It might even apply here if McMinnville shared Newberg’s proximity to larger Portland Metro agencies.

That being the case, let the talks begin.


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