With construction well underway for the new Grocery Outlet along Highway 30 in St. Helens, new apartments and new housing developments, Columbia River Fire & Rescue (CRFR) officials are looking closely at the overall economic growth impact.
In the following conversation, CRFR Division Chief of Operations Eric Smythe provides insight into how the increasing growth will impact current and future fire district services.
The Chronicle: What have been the average call volumes in the St. Helens area and what impact (projected percent increase) on those volumes does your agency see with the additional apartments, housing and commercial development?
Eric Smythe: Columbia River Fire & Rescue has seen a steady increase in requests for service over the last several years. The district has employed several programs to meet the increase demand and maximize our ability to respond to emergency incidents within our communities. CRFR has a grant-funded community paramedic who visits clients following post hospital treatment plans, chronic disease processes, and high frequency users in an effort to improve their recovery. The community paramedic works with hospitals and doctors offices to assist patients in following their medication regimen, answer questions, and act as an in home visit for patients on their road to better health.
CRFR also has implemented an emergency medical services (EMS) only day car that is staffed with EMT’s and paramedics. This 12-hour peak utilization ambulance has assisted our fire personnel on treatments and transports to area hospitals. The day-car covers the time where we see the most demands for service occurs.
This additional unit is designed to ensure we have fire personnel available for either fires or other EMS related incidents. CRFR has exceeded 5,500 emergency incidents per year and the trend continues to increase. We anticipate additional requests for service as our population increases over the next several years.
Multifamily occupancies, such as apartments, will increase the population in a smaller geographical area compared to houses/subdivisions. We have developed plans to mitigate these increases in emergency responses that occur do to these changes in our communities demographics.
The Chronicle: To best prepare for this growth impact, is CRFR considering new stations, additional equipment and more paid/volunteer staff and what areas would that additional level of service most likely be located?
Smythe: The CRFR Fire Board conducted an educational retreat with the administrative staff to review challenges and opportunities that are presenting themselves now and in the near future. CRFR is reviewing the anticipated growth to Columbia County and the communities we are charged with providing service to. We work closely with both county and city administrations on how to best provide services as the population areas expand.
CRFR is a combination fire district, we have both career and volunteer members that respond to both fire and EMS incidents. We reviewed our current status of staffing, apparatus (fire/EMS vehicles), and stations with our fire board at the October retreat. CRFR has reached a decision point and as an organization we will need to expand our staffing, equipment, and potentially stations to meet the demand placed upon us by our community stakeholders and citizens in the coming years.
CRFR operates three career staffed fire stations and five volunteer staffed stations spread throughout St. Helens, Columbia City, Deer Island, Goble, Fernhill, and Rainier.
Data is being collected to define future staffing, station locations, and equipment needs for the next five, 10, and 20 years. In order for a fire district to be successful it cannot plan the short term but look at what we will be facing in 10, 20, or even 50 years from now. Station location, personnel to staff or respond from those locations, and the fire/EMS equipment necessary to meet the challenges are all considered in our long range planning.
The Chronicle: What funding options would CRFR most likely consider to effectively and efficiently deal with the new growth demands?
Smythe: The administrative staff presented a number of options and potential revenue sources to meet the needs for additional staffing, equipment, and potential fire stations. Many of the fire stations in CRFR are over 40 years old and lack the ability to expand to accommodate additional personnel or equipment. This presents a challenge to the fire district: How do we increase our staffing to meet the increase in responses and the fire/EMS apparatus needed to transport these first responders? The CRFR administrative staff, chief officers, and fire board of directors are researching options for funding to implement these additional resources for the district.
The Chronicle: How is CRFR working with other area fire agencies to enhance established cooperative efforts for fire and lifesaving services in our communities throughout the county with additional economic growth?
Smythe: CRFR has mutual aid agreements with Scappoose, Vernonia, Mist-Birkenfeld, Oregon Department of Forestry, Clatskanie, and Longview, Wash., fire districts that allow those resources to assist our fire district. These agreements also allow for CRFR to assist those districts should they request our response for emergency incidents in their jurisdiction. Clatskanie Fire, Scappoose Fire, and CRFR cover the largest population centers of Columbia County with cross-staffed ambulances. Cross staffed apparatus have firefighters trained in either Basic Life Support (BLS) and/or Advanced Life Support (ALS) and staff either an ambulance or fire engine depending on the emergency incident.
CRFR staff a minimum of five ALS cross staffed ambulance/fire engines during a 24-hour period with an additional 12-hour staffed EMS only unit six ALS ambulances. CRFR provides for and utilizes Scappoose and Clatskanie for additional ambulances as necessary under this mutual aid agreement. Columbia County is an island unto itself, we have very limited outside resources for assistance and rely heavily on our mutual aid county relationships to meet the demands for emergency response wherever they occur.
The Chronicle: How many square miles is within the CRFR district, and currently how many paid staff and how many volunteers?
Smythe: CRFR staffs three fire stations per day with the number of personnel ranging from 10-15 personnel spread among the district. Minimum staffing for the district is four fire personnel at St. Helens station, two fire personnel at fairgrounds station, and four at the Rainier fire station. Depending on sick leave or vacations this number can increase up to two additional fire personnel on duty during a 24-hour period for a total of 12 personnel. The EMS only day car is staffed with two EMS personnel 12-hours each day to augment our fire staffing.
CRFR has 25 volunteer fire and EMS personnel that respond from six separate stations throughout the district and we are currently seeking additional volunteer members. Staffing during a 24-hour period includes one to three chief officers, a public information officer, and an EMS compliance specialist that can respond to emergency incidents as well. CRFR continues to work to increase our ability to provide both non-emergency and emergency services to our communities utilizing proactive cost saving measures. CRFR strives to meet the demand for services placed upon the fire district and ensure fiscal responsibility to our stakeholders now and in the future.
Follow this developing story at thechronicleonline.com with in-depth updates in the Wednesday print editions of The Chronicle.