‘Helping people on their worst day’

Photo provided by Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue

New Chief Director Michael Schick talks Siuslaw Valley, Western Lane and his path to Oregon

May 19, 2019 — “I have a vivid memory of my son, Alex, sitting on my lap watching Rescue 911 on TV. We just loved the show,” Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue (SFVR) and Western Lane Ambulance District’s (WLAD) newly installed chief Michael Schick said. That was 25 years ago when Schick lived in Louisville, Colo. “Driving by the fire department one day, they had a big sign out, looking for volunteers. I said, ‘You know, maybe I’ll try that.’”

Schick didn’t think he would have a career in fire and EMS. He was a medical researcher by trade, working on producing synthetic blood.

“We were making blood in bacteria and using that for transfusions, a blood substitute,” Schick said. But his company was soon bought out by a larger corporation, and he became more are more involved with the Louisville volunteer fire department, which allowed him to climb the ranks.

“Volunteer, lieutenant, captain. You see all my helmet shields there,” Schick said, pointing to a group of shields sitting in his office window sill at the main SVFR office.

Schick said he quickly fell in love with the job.

“You’re helping people, and I love helping people,” he said. “And who doesn’t like having a fire hose and putting out a fire? I also fell in love with the EMS side. I think definitely the community and the men and women I was working with were what I loved. Absolutely helping people. That’s where I get my adrenaline rush. You’re helping them on their worst day, trying to help solve their problems for them.”

Almost 25 years to the date after Schick first signed up to volunteer as a firefighter, he began his first week in the Siuslaw District.

“These look like two agencies that are going in the right direction,” Schick said. “Of course, there’s budget issues. Every fire district and EMS district in Washington and Oregon are financially constrained by the state laws.”

But in Florence, Schick also found a team of career firefighters, EMTs, volunteers and an entire community that is capable and willing to overcome those problems.

“If you have good people, you can make do and solve those issues. Definitely the people I’ve met here are good people. The community is great. My wife loves it, which is probably the number one thing. And the people we’ve met in the community are really fantastic,” he said.

Schick sat down with the Siuslaw News to talk about his past experiences, the financial issues facing SVFR and WLAD, taxes, volunteer training, getting rid of unneeded vehicles and what he hopes to see the districts become in the next 10 years.

“When I became a volunteer fire chief, I loved doing it,” Schick said about his time in Colorado. When that district decided to go to paid positions, Schick applied for full-time chief, but was denied the position.

“That was disappointing, but the person they hired, Tim Parker, was incredibly talented and experienced. He just turned out to be the best mentor that I could have ever asked for. So, one door closed, and another door opened. I would not be where I am today if he hadn’t taken the time and allowed me to get additional certifications and training.”

One of the first projects Schick and Parker took on was adding EMS into the fire district.

“A lot of fire departments bring in ALS (Advanced Life Support) transport. You don’t make a lot of money doing that, in fact you lose money. But then you have personnel.”

Schick stated that the push to add EMS training into fire started in the late 1960s and ‘70s.

“You used to have a lot of fire departments, and they just ran fires,” he said. “As the number of fires declined, some very bright people at the time figured out how they could keep the fire service relevant, and the decision was made to become fire/EMS. It was a great decision. Now, most of what a fire department does in EMS in nature. Where I come from, 70 to 80 percent of calls are medical.”

In Colorado, the department did not have ALS transport services, nor were they very practiced in EMS. So, they built an ambulance company from scratch.

“We hired paramedics, trained them to be firefighters. I learned a lot about that,’ he said. In fact, with his medical background, he found his passion was the EMS side of the business. But Schick and his wife, who are Washington State natives, wanted to be closer to their family. So when the opportunity to become a fire chief in Camano Island, Wash., came up, he took the chance.

“Last second opportunity, we figured let’s do it,” he said. “Great area. A lot of retirees, like here. The average age is high, though there’s a lot more commercial development here than on Camano. They have more people, but just less commercial development.”

Camano Island had many of the same issues that Siuslaw is facing.

“Between 2009 and 2013, everybody relied on property taxes, but those property taxes went away. They hadn’t been able to replace vehicles and they hadn’t been able to upkeep their facilities. Their strategic plan was way out of date, so I had to write a new strategic plan, and put a capital replacement plan together. We learned a lot and I think we were really successful there,” he said.

But it wasn’t as close to his family as they had thought. While he was in the same state, the traffic to see his parents in Vancouver sometimes took nine hours.

“We’ve always had a spot in our hearts for the coast,” he said. “We vacationed in the Florence area for many years. When I saw that [SVFR/WLAD] were looking for a fire chief and EMS chief, it was sort of unique, and those are the two things I’ve loved in my life the most.”

And it turned out being a closer drive to his family, just four hours on the interstate. So he called a longtime friend in the Lane County fire system, who said SVFR/WLAD was “definitely worth looking into.” Schick was selected out of four candidates.

In his first week on the job, he was thrown into the fire, literally — An unusual hot spell brought four fires to the area, including one arson and a house fire.

“It was nice to see everybody work. Safety is the most important thing that I focus on, and it was nice to see that safety was important to my firefighters as well,” Schick said.

And he was also thrown into the political fire. In his first public meeting, he was tasked with introducing a budget that included a tax increase for SVFR, raising it a total of $0.4026 per $1,000 of assessed value. The increase is not Schick’s idea, with the groundwork being done by former interim chief Steve Abel.

“You can’t blame this on me,” Schick said with a laugh, though he agrees there is a need. In fact, in researching the financials of the agencies before he came, he noticed that the board was able to increase the rate back up to $1.54 without a citizen vote.

“I called Steve and asked what the chances were on going back to that,” Schick recalled. “He said, ‘It’s funny you should ask, we’re trying to push that through.’ It didn’t start with me, but it’s absolutely critical.”

The reason he came to the conclusion was the overall health of SVFR’s budget.

“I couldn’t see any holes in the budget, and I didn’t see many areas where they could save a lot of money to buy a fire engine,” he said. “A typical fire engine you’re talking $500,000 to replace, and we have a lot of vehicles nearing the end of their lives. You look at our vehicles and they look really good. That’s because we take good care of them, and that’s due to the people that work here. But they do wear out. We have some vehicles that are 30-35 years old. In fact, the chief vehicle is an old Dodge Durango with the check engine light on and the tires are getting worn. At some point, it gets to be a safety issue in putting emergency response vehicles on the road.”

Because the budget is so tight, and so much money has to be saved to replace the fleet, it was felt the best thing to do now was to raise taxes, staving off a financial crisis in the future.

“I’m very fiscally conservative,” Schick said. “I hate doing loans for vehicles because I hate paying interest. To me, if we can put that money aside and pay cash, that saves the taxpayers money. Sometimes it’s tough to get money set aside, but you have to put away money to replace those vehicles, and there was no plan to do that.”

Both the main SVFR board and the SVFR budget committee approved of the tax increase unanimously, though there were calls for the department to cut expenses by modernizing and doing away with certain equipment. Some of the suggestions made Schick did not agree with, such as getting rid of the departments aerial (ladder) apparatus (engine).

“My recommendation would be to keep that,” Schick said. “The way I look at it, anything three stories or higher, you need an aerial apparatus. It allows us to flow a lot of water. If we had a large, big box fire like Fred Meyer, or downtown where you have buildings that are close together, it works very well.”

There were other suggestions the committee gave, such as using a compressed air foam system (CAFS) to reduce the need for water storage.

“It’s a nice idea, but I just haven’t seen it work very well. But there’s always new technology, and we’re always looking,” Schick said.

But the overall sentiment of both the board and the committee was that reductions in the fleet, and a look at modernization was vital. Schick agreed that SVFR and WLAD need leaner and meaner operations.

“You have to,” he said. “I had the same issue at Camano Island. We had six fire engines and we used one. But the ISO fire insurance rating requires you to have a fire engine in each station. Doesn’t require that you use it, it just requires that you have one there. And so we had a fire engine in each, but we only needed three. We started getting rid of fire engines and going to smaller engines. We switched to a Type 6 engine, which is a brush truck. It’s 200 to 300 gallons of water. And for 90 percent of our fire calls, that’s fine. You go smaller and you go quicker, and it’s about a third of the cost of an aerial engine.”

The idea of reducing engines also brought up the concept of shutting down underused fire stations.

“I closed a station on Camano Island, and it took me four years,” Schick recalled. “I said, ‘There’s a station in the middle of the island that’s not being used, and it’s just storage. In four years, there’s not been a response out of that station.’ So we thought to close it. The people in the neighborhood said, ‘No, it’s our station.’ There had to be community meetings, you had to talk to people. We sold the station and the land, which was revenue for the district, which was nice, but it was a difficult choice.”

Schick does not anticipate closing a station in the Siuslaw region, and has not yet gotten into the minutia of determining what apparatus need to be culled.

“Things are going well, and I’m not here to upset things,” he said. “Whenever a new chief comes in, people are afraid that there’s going to be a lot of changes. There may be down the road, but there’s a saying — ‘Firefighters hate change, and they hate the way things are.’ It’s tongue in cheek, but it’s important for me to know the community first.”

On the WLAD side, money is even tighter. During the last budget meeting, Schick found that the agency had a $500,000 budget deficit, which is not uncommon for EMS services.

“The federal government has a program to assist agencies that bill Medicaid,” he said. “On Medicare and Medicaid calls, the government pays 15 percent. It’s much more expensive for us to run a call. They’re coming up with a program where they’ll give you extra revenue for Medicaid calls. That’s a potential revenue source. It’s not in effect in Oregon, but it’s been so in Washington for a year now, and California for longer. We’re looking for revenue sources.”

In the WLAD budget meeting, Schick reported that they were able to cut the deficit by two thirds.

“We’re still working on that. You can’t run a deficit for too long. You’re just going to run out of money.”

Schick is not looking to cut services that WLAD offers, nor personnel, which he called the backbone of all EMS services.

“All jobs are secure, and nobody’s getting laid off,” he said. “Personnel, that’s our number one cost and our number one asset. You have to have personnel. We’re fortunate to have incredible personnel. The way I judge an agency is, would you let them work on your family? I would let any of these people [at WLAD] work on my family. And I don’t take that lightly. But then you have to have the equipment. It’s tough. Where do you cut back? Can you push out some equipment purchases? Can you lower healthcare costs?”

One of the biggest cost saving measures would be to continue EMS training on the SVFR side, which would help with staffing costs.

“Siuslaw is getting much more active on the medical side now,” said Schick. “So we’re working to have the fire department more and more involved [in EMS]. They’re looking for major medical calls, like difficulty breathing. Anything you might need more people than just the two that are on the ambulance, the fire department is going as well. But then you need medically trained people on the fire side.”

Which means that SVFR firefighters, both career and volunteers, will need more training.

“Our volunteers are going to be better trained than they are now,” he said. “Not that they’re not trained now, but they’ll need more.”

There are a myriad of different reasons for this, particularly state and federal requirements.

“God forbid you have an accident,” he said. “State agencies are going to come and get your training records to see if they were trained properly. It’s forcing us to have additional training, but it’s the right thing to do.”

And the list of what volunteers need is long, and ever evolving.

“You have to be trained as firefighters and trained as command, if you’re an officer,” said Schick. “You have to be trained in EMS. You have to be trained in hazardous materials. You have to be trained in automobile extrication. There’s just so many things you have to be good at, and they’re not just ‘nice to have’ anymore.”

Training is not only important for the people the district saves, but for the safety of the firefighters themselves. Schick spoke of the days when firefighters would run into a burning home without much concern for their own safety, but times have changed drastically.

“Healthcare of firefighters is a huge issue, especially with cancer,” Schick said. “Anytime they’re exposed to smoke, we want to make sure we’re decontaminating them, and documenting that. Do we have to go into a fully involved house? A lot of people don’t realize that possessions can’t be saved at a certain point. Were’ much more safety conscious. We want all our firefighters to be safe.”

The map of the Siuslaw region also calls for additional training, with its mixture of urban areas such as Old Town, rural areas south of town and forest regions in the north.

“We have a lot of wildland/urban interface,” Schick said. “A lot of people are building homes in forested areas. That’s always a concern, and you want to make sure you’re prepared for that. That’s a totally different type of firefighter.”

Schick said he understands the difficulties that increased training can have for volunteers.

“We see volunteer numbers decreasing around the country because of that,” he said. “You have a young man and woman, married with kids. Both are working and they just don’t have time to volunteer anymore.”

And many of the volunteers they do get only last for two-to-three years, using the experience as a stepping stone to career positions outside their original communities.

“And we accept that. If we can keep someone for three years, that’s a good thing. Longer is awesome, but it’s tough.”

But even with more training requirements, Schick anticipates a department that will have a larger volunteer force in 10 years’ time.

“I can see us having a very vibrant group of volunteer firefighters who are better trained,” he said. “I can see us having more career personnel.”

Schick also sees the agency being better prepared for financial troubles, and EMS and Fire being joined into one agency. Financially, it’s difficult.

“The way the taxing districts are set up, we would actually lose money by putting both agencies together [rather than in the current IGA],” he said. “Western Lane has an operating levy, which is the majority of their operating expenses. That would go away. Their permanent levy, which is half of the tax dollars they bring in now, most of that would go away. So they would have the permanent levy, and that would be added to Siuslaw’s permanent levy. So that total is much less than individual agencies.”

But as SVFR and WLAD has found in the past few years, service levels and efficiency increase when both entities are combined. So Schick does see a future when both agencies are one.

“But it has to make sense to the citizens,” Schick said. “It has to be cost effective, either save money or doesn’t cost more money.”

And for it to make sense to the citizens, citizens have to be involved in creating the strategic plan.

“You have to get the citizens involved and let them know why you’re doing things,” he said. “These are problems that we have to tackle as a community. It’s a matter of saying, ‘Well citizens, what type of service do you want?’ I can guarantee a 30 second response if I put a fire engine on each block or if we put an ambulance in your driveway. To staff an ambulance 24/7 is like a million dollars. If the citizens or someone wants me to write a check for a million dollars, I will put an ambulance in their driveway.”

But that’s not something that most taxpayers will be willing or able to afford. So Schick is looking to the public to help decide what is needed.

“We have to think about what kind of service levels the citizens deserve, want and can afford,” Schick said.

The strategic planning needed for the possible changes to SVFR/WLAD, many of which began before Schick’s tenure, will be complex.

“We’re going to have a lot of construction around and new assisted living facilities. How do you prepare for that? We have to look at how we provide the best services to our citizens.”

And to do that, Schick wants to start a strong dialogue with the citizens.

“I love having citizens come in,” he said. “I love hearing if we did something great. And I want to hear about mistakes. We’re human, we make mistakes. Every press release that comes from me, on the bottom it will say, ‘Call the fire chief.’”

The phone number is 541-997-3212.

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