Cascade Locks approves fire department reorganization Devon Wells as interim chief

January 7, 2012

CASCADE LOCKS - Like hoses hooking together and attaching to a hydrant, a three-part action by City Council connected the fire department to a new era Wednesday.

The council accepted the 18 volunteers in the department, adopted a department reorganization plan presented by Hood River Fire Chief Devon Wells, and then agreed to hire Wells as its interim chief through June 30. Wells was hired last fall to counsel the city on reorganization of a department that saw most of its volunteers resign last summer and has seen divisiveness since then as new recruits were added and existing volunteers return.

"I think it's a good plan," said Jess Zerfing, longtime volunteer who had been acting chief since August. "I think it all depends on participation by the chief. I think we have to have one leader to bring the department together and I think Devon has the skills to do that. I'm excited to see it work out."

The council held a special meeting in the fire hall meeting room, with about 40 people in attendance including all 18 fire department volunteers.

By the end of February, Wells plans to present an updated plan on hiring a chief to lead the department. Wells' plan is an interim one; long-term department organization, including ranks and command structure, will be decided later, and much depends on the recommendations by the newly formed Public Safety Task Force, scheduled to be made just prior to development of the 2012-13 budget this spring.

"I hope it's a good step forward. I'm hoping we can rebuild," said seven-year volunteer Jessica Bennett.

"This is fresh air," council member Eva Zerfing said of the Wells plan. "It gives the whole department a chance to work together."

"Department cohesion" is what Wells said is his chief benchmark for success under the plan, when asked by council member Jeff Helfrich.

"The biggest thing is not looking back," Wells said. "For there to be cohesion on the apparatus floor at all times, especially when there is an incident. There needs to be no more chatter about 'new' volunteers and 'old' volunteers.

"The key is a sense of ownership and pride in the recruits, not new and old, and the officers are going to be integral to that, through meetings and trainings."

Under Wells' plan, three senior officers will guide the department and take the lead in logistics and incident command, with Zerfing managing operational readiness, Jeff Pricher overseeing training and administration and Megan Webb managing safety and volunteer coordination.

Junior officers are John Johnson, Rick Webb and Dennis Muillenberg working under Zerfing; Jessica Bennett and Jesse Matheny working with Pricher; and Mike Spears working with Webb.

Wells said that if by mid-February the department does not see "real improvement" in cohesion, "then something is not right, and we need to take another look at it."

On the other hand, Wells said, the community needs to let the department function under the new system for a few months. Participation in training and incidents, response times, and other on-the-ground factors need to be considered, he said.

Council also appointed the following volunteers on Wednesday in the special meeting and open house at the fire hall: Shawn Parrish, Craig Martin, Travis Pardue, Zach Pardue, Ryan Nolin, Carl Keef, Robert Zerfing, Zach Belt and Wayne Overcash.

"I'm grateful to the volunteers who have stepped up and want to continue to serve the community," Mayor Lance Masters said, adding his thanks to the City of Hood River "for the partnership we've been able to build."

"The council and the community is happy to have continued the momentum that we started a couple of months back," Masters said. "I'm really looking forward to the day when we get all of our mutual aid agreements restored and are able to meet our obligations to our neighbors."

The three-part council action follows four months of discord and disorganization with the department, including a period in August when most of the volunteers resigned following the resignation in July by Pricher, the former chief. As a result, fire and emergency calls were responded to by a combination of neighboring city agencies and locals, and the fire hall was closed for a two-week period. Mutual aid agreements with neighboring departments were suspended for more than a month in late summer because Cascade Locks was not able to handle its own calls nor back up other departments.

Wells and interim city administrator Paul Koch worked to bring volunteers back and recruit new ones, and 24/7 basic life support service and partial advanced life support was restored by early December.

(On Wednesday, three Cascade Locks volunteers came to Hood River to help with a reported house fire that was confined to the kitchen of a Prospect Street home.)

In October, the newly formed council under Masters hired Wells to work with Koch on reorganizing the department. Koch said that 80 percent of his time since he was hired in August has been devoted to the fire and emergency services department. As part of his work, he visited 14 other cities to investigate funding and operations of their fire and emergency services departments.

Koch said Wednesday, "You're doing something no one else has attempted to do. It is critical to have Chief Wells in the lead."

Zerfing said the transition will depend on active participation by Wells, who is being paid $2,500 monthly as interim, the same amount Wells has earned as management consultant since October.

"The downside is we need some training," Zerfing said. "If we can get some people who've been around awhile to help get these guys trained up and on the road, that in itself will help in the building of the department. I think we can bring things together, and Devon will have a big role in that."

"I think it will," Bennett said when asked if the department reorganization will help develop communication and cohesion.

"There is a good mix of people, and some of the newer folks are going to have a say so they're not going to feel left out. I think it's a really good start," Bennett said.

How will cohesion happen?

"I think it's leadership," Masters said. "I think in these kinds of situations you have to kind of dive in and you have to have a starting point. I think people who have leadership skills rise to the occasion. Knowing some of these individuals and the history of the department, I think it's pretty clear we will have that."

Bennett said, "We're hoping for communication. Communication is always a weak point, wherever you go. Breaking down the barriers that have been created between the new folks and old folks and creating happiness."

Asked what the chief barrier is, Bennett said, "I think it's resentment. There's a lot of resentment for what's happened. You know, it's the new year. We need to put the past behind us and start fresh."

Zerfing said he is unsure of how big an obstacle past rancor may still present.

"I don't know where some of that is going,"' he said. "We certainly have some roads to mend. I think there's some attitudes we'll have to work through but I think for the most part we've got a great group of people. We've got some new volunteers and I'm extremely excited about that. They're very positive and have great ability to do the job."

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