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The district board has been talking about the need for a levy that would meet increased staffing needs.

COURTESY PHOTO: COLUMBIA RIVER FIRE & RESCUE  - Joel Medina is chief of Columbia River Fire & Rescue. To address a need for more staffing to meet call volume, Columbia River Fire & Rescue is considering placing a levy on an upcoming ballot.

Although a date for a levy is still in the discussion stage, Fire Chief Joel Medina notes that in the last four years, call volume has increased by over 3,000 calls during the year.

CRF&R has surpassed 6,200 responses for fiscal year 2021-22, according to the district, and it is forecasted to exceed 7,000 responses by mid-2023, when the current fiscal year ends.

Part of the problem is the time it takes CRF&R crews to bring patients to hospitals, Medina said.

"Because we have to drive so far with patients, our staff are gone from the county from two to three hours every time we run to the hospital," the chief explained.

Columbia County has no hospital within its borders. The closest hospitals are in Portland, Hillsboro and Longview, Washington.

Medina notes that when three or more ambulances are out at the same time, the district's ability to respond decreases.

With a huge increase in call volume, "We do not foresee us being able to meet the demands of our citizens without some kind of funding increase," Medina said.

Another factor that enters into a discussion about a levy is competition among districts. While fire districts cooperate and provide mutual assistance to one another to handle emergencies, on the business side of the ledger, they are also vying with one another to recruit and keep trained firefighters on staff. Each agency sets its own wages and benefits.

"Our ability to attract and retain staff has also become difficult as several districts around us (including Portland, Clackamas, Tualatin Valley and Hillsboro) have offered bonuses and wage increases we just cannot manage, and to be fair to our staff, we need to be competitive," Medina said.

Columbia River Fire & Rescue also needs equipment.

"We need more staff, which also means more equipment, especially ambulances and medic units," Medina added.

Asked by the Spotlight about how much a future levy could raise — or how much it would cost property-owners who live within the CRF&R district, which stretches from Warren to Rainier — Medina declined to offer a specific figure.

"At this point, it is unknown," he said. "We do not expect to have the financial information for about a year. We need to forecast for both the current needs and what is reasonably likely for the duration of the levy time frame, which usually is five years."

The district board recently discussed the possibility of an operational levy. The board believes that it should continue discussion of a levy, but "the first thing to do would be to agree on a strategy for determining what would be the best and most economical approach for the district and the citizens," as Medina put it.

CRF&R covers a sizable swath, 181 square miles, of Columbia County. The district was formed by the merger of the St. Helens Rural Fire Protection District and Rainier Rural Fire Protection District in 2002.

The district includes seven fire stations covering St. Helens, Columbia City, Prescott, Rainier and all unincorporated areas in between. It shares a boundary with the Scappoose Fire District to the south that runs through the unincorporated Warren area.

At the moment, three of the seven CRF&R stations are covered by personnel 24/7, operating either ambulances or fire apparatus for emergency response.

The remaining fire stations, located in St. Helens, Deer Island, Goble and Rainier/Fernhill, are covered by volunteer fire and EMS personnel that augment the staffed response for emergency incidents.

CRF&R handles many situations, such as medical emergencies, technical rescues, hazardous materials, building fires, brush fires, weather and natural disasters, and human-caused disasters.

Medina said the district's diverse staff is made up of 56 full-time employees, as of the beginning of the 2022-23 fiscal year, and operates a three-platoon system in which one "platoon" of firefighters works two consecutive 24-hour shifts.

"The district also operates a 12-hour peak response EMS only ambulance that augments our EMS response," Medina said.

The 12-hour peak response unit allows fire personnel to remain available for additional responses and all other hazardous incidents, such as fires and motor vehicle accidents.

CRF&R is the largest fire district in Columbia County.

As to when a levy would appear on a ballot, Medina is looking ahead to 2023 or 2024, but as with the levy amount and rate, the timing has yet to be nailed down.

Despite funding needs, Medina is proud of his district.

"We are asked to do the impossible, and we rise to meet that challenge each day with highly trained and professionally competent members that care about our communities and its citizens," he said.

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