Hood River Fire Chief Gary Willis is stepping down on Friday with full confidence that he leaves behind a workforce that is ready to handle any emergency.
“My focus has been on allowing my personnel to get the training they needed to excel so that they were as good as they could be to get the job done,” Willis said.
Although Willis planned to slide unnoticed out of his lead role over 15 volunteers and 13 staffers, city officials decided that he should be publicly honored for his dedication to local citizens. So, both residents and business owners are invited to attend a farewell open house from 4:30-6 p.m. on Friday. The event will take place at the fire station near May and 18th streets and refreshments will be served.
“Chief Willis brought one of the greatest assets I can think of to this organization. He instilled leadership in the people around him and trained them to take responsibility and authority for making decisions when he was not there,” said Lynn Guenther, city manager.
Willis is so supportive of training opportunities that, this year, he started a new tradition by adding $500 to a new $1,000 fund for educational scholarship funds. He plans to continue making the annual donation that will help firefighters take college classes to upgrade their skills.
“I really feel this city has a good group of career and volunteer fire fighters,” said Willis. “They are professionals who realize that if they make a mistake people die so there is only one way we can stop that, and that is to train, train, train.”
Willis, 51, a third generation orchardist, is leaving the post he has held for three years to help his family in their new venture, the production of “Gorge Delights” pear bars and ready-to-eat slices.
Although he is relinquishing his nine years of service with Hood River, he plans to utilize his skills with the Pine Grove Fire Department where he has volunteered since 1972.
Greg Hoeger from the Sacramento Fire District was selected out of 12 applicants to take Willis’ job with a $65,000 annual salary. He will arrive at his new duty station on Monday.
Willis plans to recommend that Hoeger work toward a consolidation of all five fire districts within the Hood River Valley.
He said that move would utilize both paid and volunteer workers to save hundreds of thousands of dollars in duplicate equipment purchases alone — plus guarantee that a firefighter was always available for a quick response on every call.
He said new state regulations, stringent training requirements and more commuting workers has made it increasingly difficult to get enough volunteers at fire scenes during daytime hours.
In addition, he said recruitment problems have also been compounded by stringent state training guidelines that require double or triple the time investiture that was typical of 20 years ago.
“People have lives and jobs to do and you can’t have a good system in place these days that relies on all volunteers,” Willis said.
He believes that if Hoeger can assure each fire department that they won’t lose their identity then the transition that would greatly benefit the public and lower liability risks should go smoothly.
“It’s not fun and games out there, it’s serious business and we need to see a combination of paid employees and volunteers on duty at all times,” Willis said.