Siuslaw Valley, Western Lane discuss future as operations continue to grow close

March 7, 2020 — Western Lane Ambulance District (WLAD), Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue (SVFR) and the Western Lane Fire and EMS Authority (WLFEA) held a joint board of directors meeting on Feb. 27, where a long discussion was held regarding the direction of the agencies moving forward.

At issue was how to replace former SVFR Operations Chief Jim Dickerson, who recently left his position to work in another city. The solution presented by Fire/EMS Chief Michael Schick was to have WLAD Operations Chief Matt House take over Dickerson’s position on a temporary basis, with the opportunity to make the move permanent.

That solution led to a wide-ranging discussion between the boards on how much work employees are expected to do, the strategic plans of both SVFR and WLAD, and the responsibilities the districts have to the public. In the background of the discussion were upcoming labor negotiations, finalizing the district’s budgets, and the still unresolved question of how much responsibility the two entities will ultimately end up sharing.

“You won’t ever hear me say the ‘M’ word,” Schick said after the meeting to the Siuslaw News. “There is no plan for a merger. We haven’t talked about a day, we haven’t talked about how we would do it and we haven’t talked about what it would look like. Really, I would say there are no plans, and we’re not discussing a merger at this time.”

House working in both operation chief positions “is just working more closely together, and everybody agrees that that’s a good thing,” Schick said.

However, the question of merger remains as the two entities share more and more responsibilities through their combined administrative service WLFEA. Even the fire and EMS authority’s board is made of directors from SVFR and WLAD.

“I’ve had directors say ‘maybe five years,’ I’ve had directors say ‘next year,’ I’ve had directors say ‘never,’” Schick said. “I think whether or not we do it is out there still.”

No final decisions were made by the boards last week, though directors did agree that responsibilities and strategic plans would have to be reviewed for each agency.

Months before the meeting, Dickerson announced he had been looking for a bigger department with more career opportunities.

“We tried really hard to keep him here, but this was a good opportunity for him,” Schick said. “I’m thankful for the time I had to work with him. I had a great relationship with him.”

Dickerson’s move was not unexpected, and for months he, Schick and House have been working on what a post-Dickerson SVFR would look like.

“So we asked, if Jim leaves, what do we do?” Schick said. “Well, maybe Matt could take over operations for both agencies.”

Dickerson oversaw fire prevention, recruitment, retention, training and the Crisis Response Team for SVFR, while House oversaw EMS training and the mobile mental health unit for WLAD. Both did operations for their respective organizations.

Schick’s initial thought of House taking over both positions was, “Gosh, that seems like an awful lot of work,” he said.

So they began reorganizing responsibilities. Schick would take over fire prevention, training and the community support team. At the end of the day, House would only be taking about 30 percent of Dickerson’s duties, while Schick and others would be splitting the other 70 percent.

“We talked to every single employee, multiple times, for feedback,” Schick said, and Dickerson and House worked closely the past few months to ensure a smooth transition.

But the transition was cut short when Dickerson’ new employer asked him to start early. Schick made an organization chart and presented it to the board during the Feb. 27 meeting.

He presented three charts: how the agencies were previously organized, how they currently are organized, and how they could be organized in the future, including the possible hiring of a training chief.

“We still have to come up with our long-term plans — whether or not we can function with Chief House and myself providing leadership to both agencies, or if we really have to fill Jim’s position again,” Schick told the boards. “The departments could use the next few months as a trial to see if it would work. I think it’s going to be a great opportunity to see how it’s working. Are we all overworked? Do we actually need a second person?”

Overwhelmingly, the directors expressed concerns as to whether or not House could handle the extra work.

“I think that Matt is doing a terrific job for us, and I’m so proud of him and he’s done a great job at the ambulance district,” WLAD Board Member Larry Farnsworth said. “Great things have been happening in our ambulance district with him at the helm, but I’m very concerned about the ambulance district just having a part-time leader.”

Farnsworth said that he didn’t want to “lose the good mojo” of the district by spreading employees too thin.

“I think it could be an opportunity for savings and synergy,” he said. “I think there could be a lot of good things about it. But I would like to look at it on kind of a test model, as you just mentioned, for six months and see if it really makes sense.”

Farnsworth also questioned whether or not the board should be approving the organizational plan. Traditionally, employee organizations are the role of the chief, not the board. However, it could be argued that placing House in charge of both operations would be another step in merging, a concern for the boards.

“I salute you for coming up with great creative ideas for staffing, but I think that is a board prerogative,” Farnsworth said.

WLAD Board Member John Murphey had concerns that they were not following through with the strategic plan.

“Since I’ve come on the board, we’ve had a lot of changes at Western Lane, and not once have we pulled out our strategic plan that we did with our community stakeholders to see if we are staying true to our word,” he said.

Murphey pointed out that there had already been WLAD specific operations that had been merged, and asked if they were on their “way to a full-blown merger that we’re not talking about? I just want to slow the process down and review our strategic plan before we make any further moves.”

SVFR Board Member Ron Green brought up concerns with pay.

“We’ve challenged senior officers to take on more responsibility. Is the compensation correct?” he asked. “I think all of these questions need to be addressed. … Let’s see if we can make this work, and then come back with a formal organizational plan.”

SVFR Board Member Alan Burns did not have enough information on the subject to comment, while Sam Spayd, also with SVFR said, “I think it’s a good idea to try this new procedure and see if it’s going to be a workable situation. It’s going to be up to Matt to make that final call. If it’s going to be a workable solution, I say go ahead.”

SVFR Board President Ned Hickson said he saw this coming and wasn’t surprised by it, trusting the fact that Schick and House would be the first to say if the solution wasn’t working.

“I want to point out too, that at least in my past experience, the support staff becomes really, really important,” he said. “This is a fertile ground for those people that are going to be coming up, as the first group transitions out and the first group transitions in. That is one of the pluses of this, is that by consolidating like this and grooming people at a lower level, and training them to move up, you have that process already taking place to replace those in the future.”

SVFR Board Member Jim Palisi, who has decades of experience in the fire field as a fire marshal, said, “I can tell you right now, it’s a lot of work and responsibility placed upon the individual,” he said, pointing out that he had his own difficulties in his past experience with merging roles. He also wanted to ensure House had the proper training for the SVFR position, which Schick replied he did.

WLAD Board Director Rick Yecny said that this was a good time to try merging the two operations positions.

“If we were to fill that position, you’ve lost that opportunity, maybe for a long time,” he said.

Yecny also pointed out that the move could have budget impacts, and that the boards need to hold a workshop on the matter. In particular, he said the boards need to develop some measurable goals for the impact, and to see if House’s new position is successful.

“Maybe it’s continued adequate response times, I don’t know, but we’ve kind of lacked having goals anywhere to measure our success,” Yecny said. “We look at financial statements, but we don’t have any quality measures. Is there a way we could come up with a very simple set of measures that at the end of six months, we can say, ‘Is it working? How do we measure success of this operation?’”

WLAD Board Member Mike Webb complimented Schick on the organization chart saying, “This is exactly what we hired you to do, to figure out how to manage the people.”

But the strategic plan, as it currently sits, doesn’t give guidance for this kind of issue.

Webb continued, “As we developed WLFEA, the strategic plan we did four or five years ago needs to be updated. We need to get into a strategic plan session, and it needs to be joined. The gravity of the districts right now is coming so close together, the operations need to be defined as to how close we are going to be, and what are the pros and cons of that.”

WLAD Board Member Cindy Russell stated that she agreed they needed to have a work session to discuss the issue, but also to take note of what the public had asked them to do.

“We used to get stakeholder reports on how we were doing on the strategic plan, and I haven’t seen those in a long time. And I’m curious as to that, as to how we’re moving forward,” she said.

The discussion tied into a statement that Russell was planning to make on the state of WLAD as a whole. At the end of the meeting, during board member comments, she read aloud from a prewritten note.

“I want to talk about where we are and where we’re headed,” she said. “Through the last several months, I’ve had an increase in concern regarding WLAD. I feel we’re spending more and more of our money and not getting anything for it. In some ways, I feel our service is decreasing.”

Russel had particular concern about whether or not paramedics were getting the chance to increase their skill levels if they are focused on SVFR, away from WLAD.

“They lose their skill level and the chance to increase their skill level by parking over here by the firehouse instead of being in with all the other paramedics to be exposed to other experiences, to increase their knowledge level,” she read.

Russell stated that there could be impacts to transfers, lifts assists and other services, and asked whether or not public stakeholders were involved with the decisions they were making.

“We are, I feel, on a downward trend, and it has to be stopped now,” she said. “I think it’s time to pause, and really look at where we’re headed with strategic planning and our overwhelming response to the stakeholders. When they call 911, they want to have our expertly trained paramedics come to the door. They don’t care about the budget, they don’t care about a lot of these things. They want a paramedic at their door, knowing what they’re going to be doing.”

She ended by stating WLAD’s mission statement — “To provide quick, efficient, professional emergency medical services, transport and community education to the highest standards of excellence.”

The meeting ended with Yecny complimenting both boards on how they handled the discussion in a productive and positive manner.