One command for one fire district makes sense
Editor's note: The following commentary represents the opinion of the News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune's editorial board.
There are active discussions going on regarding Fire Chief Michael Kinkade's idea of merging the Forest Grove, Cornelius and Gaston fire agencies into a single fire district for western Washington County.
Our newsroom has a different perspective on this situation than most — one that comes simply from how our reporters do their jobs.
There are two principal contacts that our reporters have with a fire agency: its public information officer (colloquially, its spokesman) and, perhaps less frequently, its chief. There are exceptions, of course, but these people tend to represent the public face of the agency. The PIO handles most contacts with the media, holding press conferences, placing most social media posts, and answering questions via text, email, phone calls or in-person conversations. The chief, as the top administrator of the agency, is the other main point of contact, being able to speak to the agency's workings and perspective, as when Chief Kinkade spoke with the News-Times for a cover story several weeks ago.
When this newspaper wants to get in touch with the PIO or the chief for the Hillsboro Fire Department, we know who to get hold of: Bruce Montgomery or David Downey, respectively. When we want to get ahold of the Banks Fire District, we've got Mitch Ward and Scott Adams as its PIOs and Rodney Linz as chief. Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue has a rotation of PIOs who are all familiar to us, as well as Chief Mike Duyck.
When our reporters contact Forest Grove Fire & Rescue, though, they generally contact either spokesman Matt Johnston, Division Chief Dave Nemeyer or Chief Kinkade. Who do they call for information from the Cornelius Fire Department? Johnston, Nemeyer or Kinkade. Gaston Rural Fire District? Johnston, Nemeyer or Kinkade.
From this newspaper's perspective, for our basic purposes, Forest Grove (city and rural), Cornelius (city and rural), and the Gaston Rural Fire District are effectively a single entity. They have the same command staff. They're usually on the same calls, if they're significant enough to come to our attention — a major crash, a structure fire, an out-of-control brush fire, a hazardous materials spill, etc. — thanks to the principle of mutual aid, under which emergency agencies assist one another even outside their normal boundaries. Sure, in the interest of accuracy, we differentiate between them in our reporting. But as we see it, it's the same agency with different branding depending on where it's operating.
That's an illusion, of course, as Chief Kinkade will tell you. What practically seems to be a single agency reports, as segmented, to five governing bodies. Each of those five pieces has a separate budgeting process, which are — of course — all interrelated, especially where they concern Forest Grove Fire & Rescue (which is formally comprised of a city department and a rural fire protection district that are separately funded and governed) and the Cornelius Fire Department (which, confusingly, refers to both the city fire department and the rural fire protection district for the outlying areas of Cornelius). Training requirements and processes are not necessarily uniform. Transferring personnel and assets isn't as simple as the command staff simply assigning them to one station or another across southwestern Washington County, because technically, these are five agencies that share resources in a manner prescribed by a series of intergovernmental agreements.
You get the picture by now. It's an incredibly complicated, confusing situation. Chief Kinkade, one of the most veteran and widely respected career firefighters in northwestern Oregon, has said numerous times that while it's a puzzle he's learned how to assemble through years on the job — starting out as Forest Grove's chief, then taking on Cornelius, then taking on Gaston — if he had been thrown into it as a newbie, he wouldn't have been able to do the job at all.
Someday, Kinkade will retire. What happens then?
The only reason we can see for Forest Grove, Cornelius and Gaston not to unite their fire agencies into one district is provincialism. City councilors in Forest Grove and Cornelius, and directors on the governing boards of the three rural fire districts, may be inclined to feel territorial about their agencies. They may even feel that, since they were duly elected, they have a mandate from voters to jealously guard the jurisdiction they have.
But look at Newberg. Earlier this year, TVF&R officially took over services both in the city of Newberg and the rural area surrounding it. That's because the Newberg City Council and the board of directors for the Newberg Rural Fire Protection District took an honest look at their situation, and they sensibly concluded it made no financial sense to keep providing their own fire services when TVF&R could do it for less.
In Newberg's case, those elected officials took a big leap. TVF&R is based in Tigard, well north of Newberg. It had no experience providing fire services on a permanent basis in Yamhill County. In giving up local control over their fire services, they essentially outsourced them to a command on the other side of the Chehalem Mountains.
Read the Newberg Graphic's story from March 20, 2018, on Newberg-area voters' overwhelming approval of annexation by Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue.
What policy-makers in Forest Grove, Cornelius and Gaston are being asked to consider is a significantly less dramatic step. A unified fire district would still be based in western Washington County — probably out of the Forest Grove fire station where Kinkade keeps his office. Its governing board would be elected solely by voters in western Washington County (and northwestern Yamhill County, in the case of Gaston), with a structure yet to be determined but which could hypothetically be zoned to ensure representation from each of the five areas that would come together to form it. All of its fire personnel and assets would remain in the area. All of the taxpayer dollars collected would go toward local services, except where the district is called upon to provide mutual aid.
From our perspective, this is barely a debate. The discussion should not be about whether it's a good idea to merge our local fire agencies — it should be about how best to do it.
Our editorial board talked to a lot of local candidates for office this fall when we conducted our endorsement interviews. Nearly every candidate we asked said he or she believes a fire agency merger makes sense for our community. Chief Kinkade believes it's inevitable. Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax is on board.
What are the alternatives? Well, Forest Grove could keep trying to go it alone in providing fire services. It's working out for Hillsboro. Then again, Hillsboro is more than four times the size of Forest Grove and has a far more robust industrial sector, both of which dramatically bolster property tax revenue. The Hillsboro Fire Department also doesn't cover any of rural Hillsboro, which is served by TVF&R. Cornelius and Gaston already border on the expanded TVF&R district, so they could petition for annexation if and when they find operating independently is no longer sustainable. Or Gaston could, we suppose, orient southward rather than north and east, and consider merging with the Yamhill and Carlton rural fire protection districts.
The status quo doesn't seem to be sustainable, and to us, the alternatives make less sense than a relatively straightforward merger of five fire agencies that already share a command and have been working together for years.
We just hope pride doesn't get in the way of common sense.
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It can cost as little as 3 cents a day.)