Fire chief considers merging districts
The 96-page report had just arrived in the mail and lay smack in the center of Fire Chief Dennis Hoke's desk.
"This can show us," he said, "how to pull together" the Scappoose Fire District and Columbia River Fire & Rescue districts that he now leads.
The document comes from Matrix Consulting Group, a national company that has analyzed hundreds of fire department operations across the country and is now studying how SFD and CRFR can squeeze out more services without more costs.
The SFD and CRFR boards and Hoke are scrutinizing the report and preparing responses for Matrix, headquartered in Mountain View, California. The draft Matrix report extensively analyzes call volumes and activities. There were more than 8,000 calls last year, said CRFR board chair Hans Feige.
"I, for one, see an ambulance on Highway 30 every time I drive to Portland, which gives an indication of how busy both departments are," Feige noted in an email to the Spotlight.
The CRFR and SFD boards, which have just begun regular joint board meetings, will have the opportunity to discuss Matrix report recommendations at their Jan. 9 meeting at the Columbia 911 Communications headquarters in St. Helens. Matrix is expected to return a revised report later this month.
While Hoke faces a stiff task in absorbing Matrix's critique, that's among the reasons he got the job in October following the retirement of former Fire Chief Mike Greisen. The two fire districts' boards were looking to hire someone "to shake things up a little," Feige said. They liked how Hoke brought a fresh look coming in from the outside.
The newcomer is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program and has 45 years of firefighting experience, most recently as chief of the Illinois Valley district in Southern Oregon's Josephine County.
Hoke also stood out among the applicants with his history of large department leadership, working with boards and consolidation, Feige said.
Now the new chief begins a delicate dance between the two districts. An intergovernmental agreement signed in 2016 consolidated some administrative operations between the districts, including having one fire chief, sharing equipment purchases, training and coordinating more emergency services. The latter has been important for more efficient response times and staff morale. Many Scappoose division chiefs were previously exhausted by their workloads before the IGA, a SFD public information officer told the Spotlight in 2017.
Hoke applauds how Scappoose Fire and CRFR had already begun joint purchases, including one for new vehicles that saved taxpayers $50,000. But volume purchase discounts, he said, cannot erase the sticker shock of brand new hardware. He cited how Scappoose is making do with a 30-year-old ladder truck that is an old Portland Fire Bureau hand-me-down. As Scappoose gets some three- and four-story buildings in the future, Hoke predicted, the vintage ladder truck will be inadequate to the task. A new ladder truck can cost $1.3 million, he said.
He said his major challenge is how to consolidate more services for citizens — "without changing the tax structure, or the tax rate, in either district."
It won't be easy. Hoke is critical of the new Scappoose urban renewal area, which will create more development, and likely more homes, that need fire district protection, yet the urban renewal property taxation process will reduce fire department property tax revenue.
"Our call volume will go up from urban renewal, but the cost will be borne by taxpayers outside the urban renewal area" he explained.
He also wants better communication with law enforcement, citing the October shooting and officer-involved fatality near the Chevron gas station in St. Helens as an example. Police closed off part of Highway 30 during the incident, creating problems for fire departments because it shut off ambulance routes, he said.
To help avoid such problems, Hoke is helping start regular quarterly meetings for the two fire districts and local law enforcement agencies, including Oregon State Police, Columbia County Sheriff's Office, St. Helens, Scappoose and Rainier police departments. The first meeting is set for late January.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.