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Bill to have names of fallen firefighters included on ODOT memorials heads to governor's office

PHOTO COURTESY OF SCAPPOOSE FIRE DISTRICT - Robert Hales was killed in 2008 after he had served a voluntary 12-hour shift fighting wildfires in Columbia County. He suffered a heart attack after the shift ended. His family honors him every year by attending the Oregon Fallen Firefighters Memorial Ceremony in Salem, and have now also pushed to change state law to allow firefighters names to be included on roadside memorials. A bill that provides for the inclusion of fallen firefighters' names on roadside memorials throughout Oregon is on its way to the governor's desk.

The bill, introduced during the legislative pre-session by Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, and advocated for by a local family, was approved by the House in late May and will now head to Gov. Kate Brown for signature. The Senate approved the bill in March.

The family of Robert Hales, a former Scappoose Fire District volunteer firefighter and EMT who died from a heart attack following a long shift in 2008, proposed the idea to Johnson as a way to ensure fallen firefighters were honored in the same vein as other public service members.

In 2013, the Oregon Department of Transportation approved roadside memorials to honor fallen members of the Armed Forces, and amended the law in 2015 to include public safety officers. But no firefighters.

Now that has changed.

Mary Hales, Robert Hales' wife, said the memorials are important for families of fallen service members to know their loved ones are being remembered and recognized.

"There is a memorial for Officer Thomas Jefferies, and I didn't know anything about him, and because of the sign I did look him up," Mary Hales said, referring to a memorial sign installed in 2015 for a former Portland Police Bureau officer killed in the line of duty in 1997. "A memorial is a really important way for all of us to know our loved one is being remembered. It's a shame fallen firefighters weren't already being included ... and I'm excited we've gotten that changed."

Evelyn Hudson, Hales' aunt, has advocated for the bill since it was first proposed. She, along with other family members and supporters — including firefighters, representatives from Oregon Department of Transportation, Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, and other agencies — spoke during House and Senate hearings on the memorials' significance.

During one hearing that coincided with Armed Forces Day, Hudson said the room was filled with people supporting a variety of causes, making for a powerful experience.

"The Capitol was just buzzing with people in uniform and a couple people being recognized," she said. "And that was breathtaking, and to have the room full of those different people, and to have our cause too."

Hudson and Mary Hales said they are incredibly appreciative of Johnson and her support for the bill throughout the process. Johnson ensured procedures were followed and took time out of her schedule to attend both the House and Senate hearings on the bill, Hudson explained.

"It's very exciting and we're very happy and so grateful for the work that Betsy Johnson has done to support it," Hudson said.

Once the bill is signed into law, Mary Hales said she plans to start the process of applying for a roadside memorial for her late husband as soon as possible. She would like the sign to be established either near Quail Lane, where Robert's family lived, or possibly closer to the Scappoose Fire District station.

The Hales family is also setting up the nonprofit Firefighter Hales Memorial Foundation to help families of fallen firefighters pay the $600 fee to the Oregon Department of Transportation to have a roadside memorial established.

"We don't want them to not have the sign because of the funding," Mary Hales said.

The foundation will also help families of fallen firefighters pay for travel expenses to attend memorials or other similar events when needed, she explained.

Each September, the state hosts an Oregon Fallen Firefighters Memorial Ceremony in Salem to honor firefighters who have died in the line of duty. This year, the ceremony will be held at 1 p.m. on Sept. 19.

With the bill's passage, Hudson is looking forward to attending the ceremony this year.

"Well, I am very, very grateful it all went through," she said of the bill, adding that it will be exciting to watch everyone's reaction to its passage at the ceremony.

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