July 29, 2020 — Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue (SVFR), Western Lane Ambulance District (WLAD) and Western Lane Fire and EMS Authority (WLFEA) held their monthly joining meeting last Thursday, where board members chose new leadership and discussed wildfire season, COVID-19 and the beginning of workshops to bring final resolution to complicated issues, such as exploring the pros and cons of potentially merging districts some day and how each district operates — now and into the future as part of strategic planning.
The meeting began with boards choosing officers. For WLAD, John Murphey was chosen as president, Cindy Russel vice president and Mike Webb as treasurer.
For SVFR, Ned Hickson retained his position as president, Jim Palisi was chosen as vice president and Sam Spayd as treasurer.
For WLFEA, which is the administrative branch of both SVFR and WLAD with two representatives from each district comprising its board, John Murphey was chosen as president, Sam Spayd as vice president and Russel as treasurer.
During the meeting, the financials for both districts were briefly discussed, leading WLAD board member Mike Webb to praise the work of staff.
“I want to give a big pat on the back for both [Operations Chief Matt House] and [Office Manager Dina McClure] for getting control of wages and expenses — and particularly overtime — this year,” Webb said.
WLAD board member Larry Farnsworth, who had been working with McClure on reports, agreed, stating, “And the financials look better each month.”
SVFR and WLAD Chief Michael Schick then opened discussion on three planned public workshops, the first being an examination of PERS (Public Employees Retirement System).
Previously, the boards heard from a representative of Lane Council of Governments on the program, “but we’ve become a lot more intelligent about what PERS is, and what it can and can’t do,” Schick said. “We’d like to have her come back to ask more questions.”
The second workshop would be the long-discussed strategic plan for both districts. These plans would cover many of the issues that both boards have been discussing in recent months — compensation for employees, overtime and how both districts can work together moving into the future.
That discussion would lead to a third workshop suggested by Schick.
“It would be to start a dialogue about mergers and consolidations in the districts,” he said. “Just go over some very preliminary questions about what a merger would look like and whether it’s beneficial and even feasible. It should also include concerns from staff and district employees — what bothers them, what do they think would be good. It’s not saying we’re going down that path. We’re not hiring anybody to do a consolidation study. This is just to start the dialogue to explore the topic.”
The question of whether or not the two districts should enter a full merger has been discussed for years, and while the two entities have been inching closer with cross training and communication, along with the creation of WLFEA to centralize administrative work and costs, the decision on whether or not they should completely merge has never been decided.
“We’re starting to reach out to our employees on what their hopes and concerns might be,” Schick said. “On the negative side, we might lose our health district, or we might lose SVFR and WLAD culture. I think those are things we would have to address. I’m not saying they would happen, but they are definitely a fear we have to address. We also have the PERS unfunded liability, which is much greater on the WLAD side. How would a merger affect that?”
On the positive sides, Schick stated that it would be easier to share resources, both with personnel and through finances.
“There would probably be more advancement opportunities in a larger district,” Schick said. “I know a lot of WLAD employees are interested in becoming firefighters as well.”
While there has been no decision either way, Schick wanted to move forward to getting to a final word on the discussion.
“It’s been a little difficult getting input from employees because they want to see what it looks like first, and I certainly understand that. But we want to at least start the initial dialogue on that so we can give them a more accurate picture of what that might look like,” he said.
One of the major suggestions that the boards gave was to get a firm recommendation from staff before the board begins discussing the issue.
“Some of my personal challenges with the prior leadership of this district was there was never a recommendation from management,” said SVFR director Ron Green. “I’d like to see that it gets vetted with staff before. This is too big of a deal based on one voice.”
Murphey agreed, stating, “I think you can start a committee by bringing in SVFR and WLAD staff, and you have a staff meeting, come up with the pros and cons, and make a recommendation to us.”
Throughout the discussion, one of the issues that needed to be addressed was whether or not a merger was even possible under current laws and regulations governing special districts.
“What would be the legal structure? What would legally be possible to accomplish?” Farnsworth asked.
Schick stated that he would also look into that question as well.
Once staff members answer the question of whether or not they actually want a merger, their recommendation will be discussed publicly.
“At this point it’s just exploratory,” Hickson stressed. “We don’t want to give people the impression that we’re moving toward a merger or consolidation. But we need to at least ask the questions so that we can decide whether it’s even worth pursuing at some point as part of long-term strategic planning.”
The three meetings are tentatively planned to begin in August.
The discussion then turned to House, who has been acting as the operations chief for both SVFR and WLAD since Jim Dickerson retired earlier this year.
“When we first presented this, there was a request by the board to review after six months, and that’s where we’re at today,” Schick said. “For me personally, it is working fantastic. Matt has taken to it. He’s performing both roles flawlessly. He’s doing a fantastic job. He’s helped us push the fire department in a great direction, without sacrificing the good things he was doing at Western Lane.”
Schick also reported that of the operations chiefs he spoke with, all were unanimous with praise of House.
“They were also unanimous that they don’t want him to become overwhelmed with doing two jobs,” Schick said. “Of course, that’s on my shoulders to make sure he has the tools and resources. … If there’s no comments, I’m looking forward to making this a permanent position until such time as we need to bring in additional help.”
The boards did not object to the decision.
Later in the meeting, Schick gave an update on COVID-19.
“We’re starting to be notified of multiple patients that are positive in our area. Most, if not all of the ones we’ve been notified about, are recovering at home,” he said. “The county has been giving us some addresses. Those addresses are given to our dispatch center, with the idea that if we are dispatched to that address, our crews will be notified. They can take extra precautions and make sure everything is okay.”
Schick also gave a reminder that brush fire season has begun in the region.
“With temperatures rising and the wind very strong in the afternoons, those are the conditions you get bad fires,” he said. “The Oregon Department of Forestry has been very active responding with us to fires in the area. That’s a good thing. The challenge is that it’s also the time of year we lose a lot of our more experienced firefighters to wildfire response in other parts of the state.”
On that same subject, Schick also said SVFR was losing one of its most experienced wildland firefighters with the retirement of Battalion Chief Dave Beck, who has spent 40 years in the region’s fire service as the chief of Canary station (see feature on B1), as well as a wildland fighter over the summer.
“It’s a big loss in our leadership that we have to look to fill,” House said.