Fire authority an opportunity to pull together as one
Over the next few months, the idea of bringing fire agencies in the Forest Grove, Cornelius and Gaston areas together under one authority is likely to get some play in our local communities.
The concept is still a little murky — there's a lot about it that has yet to be decided — but the underlying idea is simple. Forest Grove, Cornelius and Gaston already share one fire chief, Michael Kinkade. Under a Western Washington County Fire Authority (a working title, with the final name, again, yet to be decided), cities would have input into a single board that would supervise Kinkade, creating a single fire command for those communities.
But we should be careful about that word, "communities."At the western end of Washington County, we've historically been reluctant to embrace our ever-growing neighbor, Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue. Fire District No. 2, which covered North Plains and several unincorporated communities like Midway and Scholls, finally merged with TVF&R last year, after voters said "yes" to a ballot measure in 2016 (a vote we endorsed). That leaves Hillsboro Fire & Rescue an island surrounded by the TVF&R district, now the state's largest, with a constellation of fire departments and districts west of Dairy Creek remaining independent as well.
We understand and appreciate the impulse to retain our autonomy. Forest Grove moves at a very different speed than Beaverton or Wilsonville. For that matter, policy-makers in Hillsboro — on a pace to become the largest suburb in Oregon by mid-century — don't see the need to combine its resources with the fire district, which is understandable as well.
But what we should be careful of is treating our communities as islands unto themselves.
Kinkade already oversees emergency response in Forest Grove and Cornelius — two cities so closely intertwined that their mayors will give a joint "State of the City" address on Feb. 26, at their shared Chamber of Commerce, in what has become a local tradition — as well as the rural Gaston area. Cornelius and the Gaston Fire District chose to adopt Forest Grove's chief as their own. It's an arrangement that has worked well, but we believe Kinkade when he says it's not a job that a newcomer could do.
Here's the thing about that word, "communities" — that's just one way of looking at the places we live and work and recreate. Really, we are part of one larger community here in western Washington County (and northwestern Yamhill County, too). We depend on one another.
One of Kinkade's most powerful arguments for bringing our fire agencies closer together was one of numbers: Forest Grove Fire & Rescue alone often doesn't have enough first responders on hand to perform what we think of as the basic duties of a fire department, like putting out a house fire or administering CPR to someone who has stopped breathing. Like all fire agencies, FGF&R relies on something called "mutual aid," in which it asks neighboring agencies for assistance. Hillsboro Fire & Rescue, even though it's much larger, takes advantage of mutual aid, too. Even Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue does.There's something beautiful behind mutual aid, an underlying principle that both makes it economically feasible and speaks to the best of our shared humanity. The reason mutual aid is so commonplace, the reason our Westside first responders work so well together, is that it's treated as part of the job. A firefighter on duty in Forest Grove will go out to help rescue a man who falls down a well in Gaston, or even help battle a fire in Farmington, and as long as the emergency response doesn't last more than a day, FGF&R will pick up the tab. And guess what? Gaston Fire and even TVF&R will do the same for them.
In so many ways, our fire agencies are already working together. A fire authority will stabilize the existing arrangement between Forest Grove, Cornelius and Gaston while continuing to set the stage for a fire district. There is little reason we see not to move in this direction.
Unlike an authority, a district would levy its own taxes — hopefully at a rate below TVF&R's steep $2.0799 per $1,000 of assessed value, but enough to add firefighters and equipment, upgrade stations, and do whatever else is necessary to maintain and improve fire services as the population of western Washington County grows.
That's the logical next step, and with large new apartment complexes and housing developments in Forest Grove and Cornelius set to come online in the coming months and years, we'd like to see it happen sooner rather than later. But for now, establishing a fire authority would give Chief Kinkade and his firefighters some peace of mind while elected officials work toward the goal of a western Washington County fire district.
These steps, we hope, will give our greater community the level of service it needs and deserves while preserving local control.
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