No easy solutions in Cascade Locks fire debate

July 20, 2011

A Cascade Locks citizen committee has met twice since the city learned Thursday it is losing fire protection support from Hood River, but is no closer to finding a solution to the situation.

Monday's continuation of a Friday public meeting of the five-member city services committee was adjourned after volunteer firefighters were allowed a few minutes to air their concerns. Mayor George Fischer had called the meeting Friday, but declined to hear comments from the volunteers. The meeting was continued over to Monday, when three volunteers spoke to the committee.

Monday's meeting was adjourned over the protests of several citizens in the room who called the committee biased and protested that no public comment was allowed beyond that of the volunteer firefighters.

A letter last week from the five Hood River-area fire departments - with which Cascade Locks has mutual aid agreements - informed the city the agreements would end in 30 days because Cascade Locks is without a fire chief. Chief Jeff Pricher resigned his position July 8 after cuts were made to his salary and to the department's budget by the city council.

At Monday's continuation, Fischer invited Cascade Locks volunteer firefighters to speak during the public comment session of the meeting, allowing them five minutes. Fischer opened the meeting by reading a statement which advocated for the volunteers helping the city to move forward in resolving the issues between the volunteers and the city.

"We highly recommend hiring someone with knowledge of our department and our situation ... that would be of the most benefit," volunteer Meagan Webb said as the first to the microphone.

Assistant volunteer chief Jess Zerfing took to the microphone after Webb and told the council that he was disappointed with the format of the meeting, and said he had expected a round table discussion with the council as opposed to a formal question period set at five minutes.

"Frankly I think this is a mistake," he said. "I am disappointed."

Zerfing was asked if he would be interested in being volunteer chief, but said he would not be, and could think of no one currently in the department who would. He said the volunteers all have full-time jobs; the chief's position involves much more than fighting fires, and includes paperwork, supply inventory and orders, and chiefs and council meetings.

Councilor Ron Haight asked if finding a volunteer to help out for a few hours each week would help, but Zerfing and Webb responded that the volunteer would need to be certified, know how to inventory medications on the ambulance and know how to bill Medicaid requests, among other qualifications.

"You are going to find me someone off the street who is able to do all that?" Zerfing asked.

Zerfing also said he believed that by not having a full-time, qualified paramedic, the city was sacrificing revenue in needing to have other departments transport patients via ambulance. He also said the city's ambulance is in disrepair and would need to be replaced within months, if not sooner, with no one to maintain it.

Earlier Webb said the city would actually lose money on having outside agencies respond to ambulance calls.

"We will actually be paying money out on those calls because of fuel and maintenance," she said.

Next to the podium was volunteer Jessie Metheny, who said that rumors that the volunteers had stopped responding to calls were untrue.

"There have been some rumors that the volunteers are on strike or have left the community," he said. "There have been 24 calls since July 1 when our former chief turned in his resignation letter and only four of those have gone unstaffed. … I think we have done a good job of picking up the slack."

Metheny said he had an application in hand from someone willing to volunteer some time on a limited basis, and submitted it to the council. The application was from former Chief Jeff Pricher.

After the meeting Fischer said no decision on Pricher's application would be made until it was discussed by the city council.

Fischer said that he would ideally want to hire a volunteer firefighter chief, or one willing to work for a small stipend to fill the position, but that "finding a volunteer fire chief is not easy."

None of the half-dozen or so volunteers in the room for the meeting Monday said they would be willing to fill the position.

The meeting was originally called Friday by Fischer at the urging of CSI, the city's insurance carrier.

On July 14 the chiefs of the other five fire districts notified Cascade Locks by letter that all mutual aid agreements are terminated within 30 days, because Cascade Locks has no chief and volunteers are not responding.

On Friday the council members debated whether or not volunteers were responding to calls. "We don't have that situation," said council member Lance Masters, who repeatedly challenged Fischer over the assertion that volunteers are not responding, stating that he talked to two volunteers who said that at least some of the volunteers are responding. That was confirmed at Monday's meeting by Metheny.

After lengthy discussion Friday, the council voted by consensus to inform Hood River 9-1-1 to tone out Hood River Fire Department for calls affecting Cascade Locks.

Citizens present said the action amounted to "firing the volunteers."

When contacted Monday Hood River Fire Chief Devon Wells said he had not been formally asked by Fischer to have Hood River Fire be the first response for Cascade Locks, but that they would respond if necessary and able.

"It's taxing on us," Wells said. "We need to have our resources here in Hood River before we go to Cascade Locks."

Council member Tom Cramblett said, "Before we had a paid chief we had a volunteer chief.

"In this process when you lose a chief, you have to go to the rest of the people and see where the rest of the organization is; either a volunteer chief, if they do have the capability of doing that, you work with the volunteers and if they don't have the capability, you look outside. Right now, we do not have a chief but we do have a variety of volunteers with a variety of skills."

Cascade Locks Fire Department volunteers were present at the Friday meeting but not asked to speak, and Fischer declined to answer questions as to why no comment was taken.

"I'm questioning the justification for why we're having this meeting, based on that," Masters said. "Without a paid person we have volunteers who answer calls when they can. It's possible in the past few days we have volunteers who could not answer the calls."

During Monday's meeting, Fischer said that he hoped volunteers would continue to work with the city services committee to find a resolution to the situation. He said there is an opening on the committee for a citizen who wishes to apply.

The committee has not had a clearly defined role until being tasked with Fischer to help resolve the fire protection issue.

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