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Published: Wednesday, 2/8/2006

Oregon: Daytime jobs of volunteer firefighters interfere with response time

BY ERIKA RAY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Part-time, volunteer firefighters who work other jobs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. have posed a potential problem in the Oregon Fire Department.

During those daytime hours, city administrators have been noting more occurrences in which they're getting fewer firefighters responding to calls at a slower pace.

"We're not getting times consistent with what our expectations are," City Administrator Ken Filipiak said. "Some times are getting worse, and, in some cases, there's less people. At this point, we're watching those trends."

He said the trend has been slowly happening over the last few years because there's been a general movement away from second and third-shift work in favor of working during the day.

"There's fewer resources available during those daytime hours," Mr. Filipiak said. "So you still get responses, but not the consistency of responses that you've had. That's the point that we are at, and we haven't even reached a conclusion on the significance of our problem yet. The community can be very confident of our level of services."

Fire Chief Ray Walendzak said he started keeping track of the number of calls at which fewer than five firefighters responded three years ago, but this year he plans to keep an eye on more statistics on a run-by-run basis.

Data that's being watched include how quickly calls are answered, how quick the response time is to the station, then to the scene, the number of initial firefighters on the scene, the times of day the responses are more than adequately staffed, and how the city's growth affects that data.

And Oregon is changing and growing. The city has seen more development - commercial and residential - and there's been a shift in traffic patterns on the main corridors.

Mr. Filipiak said city officials are taking all that data into consideration while trying to define the problem and the most cost-effective, optimal solution.

"We're in the process of gathering statistical data to evaluate the problem," he said. "Over the next year, or maybe longer, we're going to look at alternatives to it."

Potential solutions that he said might be feasible would be to redefine each district's coverage area, change some policies and procedures with part-time personnel, add more part-time employees or full-time personnel, create permanent shifts using part-time personnel, or change mutual-aid agreements.

But until the study is complete, Mr. Filipiak said it's too premature to talk about implementing any of those options.

"This is an issue that you take baby steps on," he said. "The reason for this is to make sure we provide for the changing needs of the community."

The department has a full-time fire chief, an assistant fire chief, and a training lieutenant, along with 11 full-time paramedics. The department's part-time volunteers number between 90 and 100 who go on more than 2,000 runs a year.

Stations No. 1 and No. 2 have a waiting list. Because the department has an annual 10 percent turnover rate, the chief said he looks first for those who don't work first shift to fill those empty spots on the roster.

"We've tried for years to find shift workers, and they're almost impossible to find," he said. "That's not just a problem in Oregon; that's a problem statewide."

For now, Oregon officials will continue monitoring the daytime shift for potential conflicts. "We're watching this problem," Mr. Filipiak said. "We will have a plan in place if we decide down the road it needs to be addressed."



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