DALLAS — In the face of Falls City area residents’ concerns, members of Southwest Polk Rural Fire Protection District Board vowed Monday night to strike a new contract with the city for fire service.
On Jan. 2, Southwest pulled its two trucks and a quick response SUV after contact negotiations broke down between the district and Falls City.
“I realize that this particular issue has not been an issue in the past,” said board member Rod Watson. “We will get this resolved. We have no intentions of leaving you guys hanging out there forever.”
At the board’s meeting Monday night, several Falls City residents were in attendance, and three spoke about their fears of diminished service in and around Falls City.
Southwest board members pointed out that Falls City Fire will respond via mutual aid, but that did little to calm those at the meeting.
Jennifer Wright lives five minutes from the Falls City Fire Station, but believes that the fire engine remaining at the station won’t make it down her driveway. She’s afraid if an incident were to happen at her home, that help would have to come from Dallas.
“That’s 25 minutes for Dallas to respond,” she said.
Bob Davis, a Southwest board member and professional firefighter, disputed that, saying he’s witnessed that engine perform a similar job when it was in service in Salem. He said if a driveway meets access standards, the truck should be able to drive it.
“I don’t know the condition of your driveway, but I can tell you the ability of that truck because it did that very thing for 18 years in the city of Salem,” Davis said. “It happened to be at Station Nine that was on the rural edge of the city. That engine will make any driveway in reasonable condition.”
Wright said she wasn’t convinced, based on what members of Falls City Fire told her.
“I’ve had multiple ones tell me it is a pavement vehicle, not an off-road vehicle,” she said.
Falls City Fire Chief Bob Young said the trucks Southwest placed in Falls City were meant to complement those the city owned.
“Everything we’ve done is try to offset each other — work together so we have apparatus that can do all these different things. If it’s a big structure-type fire, then we take our city engine out because it has a bigger pump. If it’s a narrow driveway, we worked on getting a four-wheel drive engine out here,” he said last week after Southwest removed its trucks. “I worked with (Southwest) when we ordered those things, when we put that truck together for specifically our area.”
Falls City residents asked that Southwest give negotiations another shot — and find a way to compromise — to re-establish a contract.
“I don’t think you guys really want that,” said Falls City resident Tiffany Weems. “You guys want to takeover. You want to force people out and takeover.”
District residents said that is especially important because of the district’s recently passed bond to provide better service, something some district residents living near Falls City don’t believe they are getting.
Southwest’s board and Chief Fred Hertel have said liability, firefighter certification and department accreditation have been issues during contract negotiations.
Records with Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, the organization that oversees firefighter certification and department accreditation, say Falls City hasn’t been accredited in years.
“The department is not accredited to teach to statewide standards and hasn’t been accredited since May of 2011,” Hertel said. “They can train internally because DPSST is a voluntary state standard, but it is a best practice and a standard that was written into the 2014 contract between Southwest and Falls City. They had never honored that part of the contract.”
Julie Olsen-Fink DPSST’s fire program manager said accreditation establishes a voluntary “handshake” agreement that the department will follow all rules and regulations suggested for fire agencies.
It also allows a department to offer its own training without having to bring in an outside certified trainer.
“It means that they are self-contained,” Olsen-Fink said.
She said the state doesn’t require agencies to be accredited, but noted that most fire agencies in Oregon are accredited.
Olsen-Fink confirmed that Falls City Fire hasn’t been accredited since 2011, but is in the process of updating its status.
“They’ve made contact with our agency for re-accreditation,” Olsen-Fink said.
The process includes a review of current rules and regulations, assurance that the department has the proper equipment (a pumper engine), and provides training directed by a National Fire Protection Association certified fire instructor.
Accredited agencies also must provide proof of necessary re-certifications and maintain records of that training for at least five years.
Olsen-Fink said if an agency can’t check all those boxes, departments work with the agency to set up a plan to achieve accreditation.
Olsen-Fink said Thursday that the active roster of Falls City firefighters her agency has on file says that all are up to date on their certifications. She noted that the paperwork on file at DPSST is only as current as the agency in question keeps it, and the DPSST doesn’t keep track of records that are out of date.
Falls City representatives have said there has been some certification accounting inconsistencies at DPSST. They are working on getting that straightened out. Hertel said some, but not all, of Falls City’s volunteers are certified.
Also noted after the contract dispute began is the existence of two open investigations into sexual harassment allegations involving Falls City’s volunteers.
Sheriff Mark Garton said his office investigated the cases in the spring and summer of 2017. That followed Falls City Fire’s own investigation that found the allegations couldn’t be proven, Young said.
Garton said one of the cases reportedly happened at the Falls City Fire station and another occurred when the volunteers weren’t working on behalf of the fire department or at the station.
“We did investigate them and compiled the reports,” Garton said.
But Garton said the cases weren’t clear-cut, so the agency made no arrests and referred the investigation to the Polk County District Attorney.
“We sent them up there for review in August and haven’t heard anything back,” Garton said.
District Attorney Aaron Felton said the cases are open and are being actively reviewed. He said he couldn’t comment further because investigations are ongoing.
Monday night, Falls City resident Kathy Flanigan asked if the board had considered a third-party mediator to help with negotiations.
Hertel said that was under consideration before Falls City declared an impasse in negotiations late last year, and still is a possibility. He said the two sides would have to find a qualified person to mediate.
“You have to have someone who understands fire and EMS issues,” Hertel said. “There are several entities that are statewide that could come up with a third party, and we were looking into that.”
Monday night, Watson said the board wasn’t prepared to answer all concerns, but would keep listening to feedback from the community before deciding the next steps.