By editorial board • 

Consolidated fire operation demands look

Tigard-based Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue is Oregon’s second-largest emergency services outfit, ranking only behind Portland Fire & Rescue.

It protects 11 cities in four counties, deploys 454 firefighters from 26 stations, and serves 530,446 residents over 390 square miles. Operating on an annual budget of $197 million, it grew out of the Beaverton Fire Department, founded as a volunteer force in 1914.

Is there a reason Beaverton, Newberg, Sherwood, Tigard, Tualatin, West Linn, Wilsonville and several neighbors have banded together to field a unified fire and rescue operation?

Yes, there is. And it’s also driving consolidation in Polk and Yamhill counties.

Sheridan, Willamina and Southwest Polk recently began to take tentative merger steps under a new joint chief, and Dallas may eventually join them. Carlton’s urban and rural forces have combined operations, and are sharing a chief with Lafayette. And Amity recently agreed to put its force under the command of McMinnville Fire Chief Rich Leipfert.

The really big step, now being contemplated, would be a merger of the Amity, Yamhill, Carlton, Dayton, Dundee, Lafayette and McMinnville forces to create a smaller version of Tualatin Valley. Dallas and the Sheridan/Willamina/Southwest Polk combine are also seen as potential partners.

Forces driving consolidation include rapidly shrinking availability of community-minded volunteers, woefully inadequate tax bases, incredibly expensive advances in technology, a growing call for specialized training and equipment, and an expanding array of demands, serving to drive call volumes exponentially higher.

As Fred Hertel said as he prepared to assume the Sheridan-Willamina helm, it’s not your father’s fire service anymore. Neighboring farmers rushing in to form bucket brigades just doesn’t cut it.

It’s much too early to assess the fiscal, political and logistical feasibility of such a large-scale merger. Each prospective partner would, of necessity, have to make its own interests paramount, and those interests could well conflict with someone else’s.

However, Leipfert has put the ball into play by asking the McMinnville City Council to commission a formal study. And while we’re not at the point of endorsing creation of a unified district — not by a long shot — we are at the point of endorsing active consideration.

The idea might never fly in full. It might not even fly in part, giving the complexities of intergovernmental agreements.

However, going it alone on fire and ambulance service is becoming increasingly untenable, particularly for small districts serving large areas. That’s what has gradually, over several decades, served to expand Tualatin Valley reach into four counties.

Some sort of consolidation seems almost inevitable for forces up to and including the size of McMinnville’s. And there’s no time like the present to begin kicking around possibilities.

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