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City reps don gear, go through live fire drill as stretched-thin, understaffed Gresham Fire needs support

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Gresham City Council were firefighters for a day.  In Gresham it was all about walking a mile in another's shoes — well maybe more like a whole heavy-duty, flame-retardant ensemble.

Friday morning, May 27, Gresham City Councilors set aside their gavels and picked up a hose as they took on the role of fire recruits. They met with many of the men and women keeping the community safe; took an abridged class to learn how fires are started and spread; put on all the gear, including a customized fire helmet gifted to the councilors by Local 1062; worked their way through a live-fire drill; and participated in skill stations.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Lt. Kevin Larson, Gresham firefighter and president of Local 1062, hosted the event with council. "We want to educate council on what we do as firefighters," said Lt. Kevin Larson, Gresham firefighter and president of Local 1062. "They make decisions that affect all of us, so it is important they understand what we face."

In total 16 off-duty firefighters put on the event for Councilors Mario Palmero, Sue Piazza, Janine Gladfelter, Dina DiNucci, Vincent Jones-Dixon and Eddy Morales.

"This is a small taste of what we face," Larson said.

All told the electeds learned how difficult it is to be a firefighter, and gained an appreciation for what Gresham Fire is dealing with while understaffed, underfunded and working with aging equipment.

"We are here to learn about what our firefighters are going through, get a better understanding of all they do," Piazza said.

"I've been training for this," Morales said with a laugh. "I ran like 15 miles this week."

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Councilor Eddy Morales.  In some ways this is a dream come true for Morales, who planned on becoming a firefighter in high school. He completed EMT basic training and was set to head down that career path until life took him in another direction.

"I might be too old for it now," he added.

Palmero was nervous and excited about the live-fire drill.

"I couldn't sleep much last night," he admitted.

For Gresham Fire, the hope is that by connecting with the Council and actually having them see and feel the ferocity of a fire, it will spur more of an investment.

"We are the closest thing to superheroes that actually exist," said Capt. Travis Soles, who serves as Gresham's training officer. "Firefighters are ordinary people called upon to do extraordinary work."

Stretched thin

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Gresham Fire and Emergency Services is underfunded and understaffed. In the past decade residential fires have become much more dangerous.

Because of synthetic materials being used to construct homes, furniture, carpets, and everything else, fires are burning hotter and more quickly. A couch made in the 1970s might take 10 minutes to become fully engulfed — giving first responders plenty of time to arrive on the scene and douse the flames. But now we are talking about minutes.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Off-duty Gresham firefighters gave a demonstration of how to properly entire a building on fire during the council event.  "It is unbelievable how quickly it spreads," Soles said. "And our response time is based on when someone notices and reports a fire, not when it first sparks."

Gresham Fire & Emergency Services is in a difficult position. They are short-staffed and utilizing aging, outdated equipment. While the fires have gotten worse, and the community has grown, Gresham Fire hasn't kept up with the times.

"Our firefighters face about three times the call volume than those in Tualatin Valley," Larson said, citing a similarly-sized community. "We are doing as much as we can."

The department has 90 people assigned to fire operations, which is 28 positions short of the minimum standard. And even 12 new recruits set to graduate academy in July will only provide a brief respite, as there are more retirements on the horizon.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Gresham City Council were invited by Gresham Fire to spend the day watching demonstrations, learning skills, and understanding the difficulties facing an understaffed department.  Those are the same staffing levels since 1990, while call volume has exploded nearly 500%. According to the city of Gresham, in 2021 the fire department responded to 22,947 calls across Gresham, Troutdale, Fairview Wood Village, and unincorporated parts of East County.

"When we have less staff there is more opportunity for injury, and mental health issues," Larson said.

Gresham Fire is operating on a 4.5 to 5 minute average response time, but that is only if no other incidents are occurring. Upon arriving at a scene, the standard safety practice is to wait for four firefighters before entering a building — unless there is an obvious citizen in danger who needs immediate rescuing.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Councilor Dina DiNucci.  But the majority of Gresham's engines are only crewed by three firefighters, which means in most cases they can't start actively engaging with the flames until two engines arrive. That stretches the few resources even further.

"One apartment fire encapsulates our entire department," Larson said.

In Portland the standard is four firefighters per engine, which means less waiting to engage. Gresham Fire would love to increase their staffing to four-per engine.

"We just can't staff these engines," Soles said.

And the equipment and facilities are being run down. The location of Friday's session with Council — Gresham Fire's academy training center — is outdated. The four-story tower they use for a multitude of drills is dilapidated, and has to be checked monthly just to keep it from falling down.

"We are doing what we can," Larson said.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Councilor Janine Gladfelter.  The hope is that Gresham Council will use all of this new knowledge to help the fire department in the short and long term. The immediate need is to bring on more firefighters to at least meet that minimum staffing level and have full engines and stations.

In the future Gresham Fire needs to build more stations to cover new neighborhoods in the city, purchase new engines and equipment, and have the ability to increase standards like 4-person teams to meet evolving demands.

"After today there is an appreciation for what our firefighters are going through," Morales said.

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