Cascade Locks Fire Department volunteers return to service

November 26, 2011

CASCADE LOCKS - Hood River Fire Chief Devon Wells will present a reorganization proposal for fire and EMS service in Monday's City Council meeting.

Twelve fire department volunteers returned to the force as of Wednesday, just in time for the traffic-heavy Thanksgiving weekend, according to Mayor Lance Masters.

The volunteers met Tuesday with Masters, interim city administrator Paul Koch, council member Jeff Helfrich and Wells as part of a new effort to revitalize the department.

"We shared plans with them and they're excited about it," Masters said.

Most of the volunteer base resigned over the summer following the departure of former chief Jeff Pricher. In recent weeks numerous accidents, fire and aid calls have gone unanswered by Cascade Locks volunteers. Hood River and Skamania fire and EMS services have handled some of the calls, and a private ambulance service from Troutdale has also responded to some calls.

As of Wednesday, however, the department was much better able to respond. Among the calls they went to was a Wednesday afternoon accident on Interstate 84 near Bonneville Dam.

Seven new volunteers are also currently undergoing training. "We're happy about having them back because this weekend a lot of traffic on the road, and it's good to get them out responding," Masters said.

"It's an exciting development for us that we're that close to getting the department back on track and able to respond," he said. "We owe a lot of credit to Chief Wells and to the volunteers for being willing to come back." Wells is in the second week of a management services contract approved earlier in November by council.

Wells said, "Things are definitely on the mend; it's just a matter of taking time to iron out some of those finer details."

"We just need to get some of the bumps smoothed out and get the organizational plan installed," Masters said.

The council is meeting each Monday until Christmas, "because we've got a lot of things on our agenda," Masters said.

On Monday, the council will also discuss city goals and priorities, part of an ongoing review of the list by the newly formed council.

Also on the agenda for the 7 p.m. meeting will be a report from Cascade Locks Charter School committee consultant Connie Kennedy on possible charter school merger with neighboring Corbett School District.

At its Nov. 21 special meeting, the council reviewed and discussed the council priorities resolution, passed by the previous council in August.

"We'll come back at a different meeting and finalize what our priorities are,"" Masters said. "We'll have an open discussion and clarification. It's a learning process for the new people and the others will state what their concerns are."

He said, "Economic development in my mind rose to the top of the discussion, if only because we already have the idea of resolving the fire department issues in motion."

Masters described Wells' plan for rebuilding the fire department as "an organizational structure for running the department in the short term.

"The main goal is to get our ambulance and fire service to the point where we can service our own calls," he said. "I think there's just recognition that running a fire department with an EMS service with just volunteers is difficult to do.

"When you share the responsibilities amongst volunteers it's a more stable system," Masters said. "He's going to present us an organizational structure that will allow us to do that. We have no paid chief; can't lay it all on one volunteer."

Jess Zerfing is acting chief, serving eight hours weekly as a volunteer.

Wells said essentially he will propose establishing four to five volunteer administrative and operational positions, each to handle part of the work load: one to coordinate training, another EMS, another to oversee fire responses, and another to handle administrative needs.

"It spreads out the work load and gives everyone an opportunity to contribute," Wells said.

In the Nov. 21 meeting, the council also voted to reverse two decisions by the former council:

The new council agreed the city should renegotiate a contract with OMI. The former council had voted to have city staff operate the wastewater treatment plant. Masters said the consensus was "to change that direction and make sure we keep OMI on." OMI's contract expired in June but it has continued to operate the plant.

Masters said the council also decided that the city would not pay for broadband Internet service for the council members.

"It was unanimous that was not the right idea," Masters said. Council members will pay for their own email, and the city will provide email addresses in order to comply with public records law.

In addition to the Nov. 28 meeting, council members are also scheduled to attend the Dec. 5 Joint Economic Development Task Force meeting with the Cascade Locks Port Commission, at 7 p.m.

The port commission is already planning to meet as a full board, and had invited the council to do the same.

City council could appoint individual councilors to attend or go as a full panel, according to Koch. In the Nov. 14 council meeting, Masters argued for full council participation, saying "the task force with the port will play an important role in resolving some of our other issues.

"I certainly want to hold it up as a priority. We have heard that a proper relationship with the port is a priority."

But council members Gail Lewis and Helfrich lobbied for a wait-and-see approach, with Lewis suggesting, and the others agreeing, that the council decide Nov. 28 how to participate in the Dec. 5 meeting.

Lewis acknowledged the importance of economic development and of partnering with the port, but commented that the new council first needs to meet with city staff and review city projects and priorities.

"Let's focus on restoring the services we need, and our short-term goals, then look go forward. Let's start narrow and then reach out," added Helfrich.

"I think that's going to be the priority."

He said re-establishing the fire department is currently on two tracks: what he called "The Devon Wells track," that of putting policies and procedures back in place and expanding the volunteer corps, and the "long-term assessment track" of figuring out operations and financing.

"Both tracks have to fit together," he said.

Masters stated Wednesday that "my preference is for the Task Force to become a joint meeting of council and port along with interested business owners, property owners, and others. It opens the door to more people. The more people we have involved the better."

"Hopefully we will continue our developing partnership with the Port and make progress together on some things," Masters said.

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