Depoe Bay firefighters during a training session. The Depoe Bay Fire District says it does not have enough volunteers to guarantee adequate emergency response at all times and is asking voters to approve a 61 cents per $1,000 operating levy in May. (Photo: Depoe Bay Fire District)

By Larry Coonrod

DEPOE BAY—Whether enough firefighters show up to control a home blaze or respond to a traffic accident is becoming increasingly problematic.

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“We have never missed a call but have had calls where we respond with one person,” Depoe Bay Fire District Chief Josh Williams said.

Williams laid out the cold reality of the district’s personnel shortage to the Depoe Bay City Council this week, explaining why the fire district placed a five-year operating levy on the May 19 ballot. 

Volunteer Shortage

Like most rural fire districts, Depoe Bay relies on a mix of career firefighters and volunteers. And, like most departments, volunteer numbers in recent years has not kept up with demand.

“The fact of the matter is that times have changed and it is more difficult to recruit and retain volunteers,” Williams said.  

The district has three career firefighters. 

Although Depoe Bay has increased the number of in-district volunteers, many work during the day and cannot respond to calls. That creates uncertainty for the fire department, which has only one fulltime career firefighter on duty at a time, who relies on volunteers to round out an emergency response call. 

“I do not have a way I can give this district a predictable response,” Williams said. “Day-to-day, I don’t know who is going to be on the engine. I’ve gone from times that there has been nobody on the engine except the one person up to times when we have five, six or seven that respond.”

Two In – Two Out

Fire departments operate on a two in two out rule. Meaning that it takes four firefighters to enter a burning structure. Two outside the building and a two-person entry team.

Although structure fires have followed a national trend in decreasing, Williams says medical assistance calls, vehicle accidents and rescues have increased. 

The fire district covers an area running from the south end of Siletz Bay to Otter Rock in the south that encompasses about 15,000 residents. According to Williams, the number of calls have increased by 12 percent in the last year alone. 

“We are in the position that the district cannot operate anymore under a purely volunteer system,” Williams said.

Levy Would Fund 6 New Full Time Positions

The district is asking voters to approve a five-year operating levy of 61 cents per $1,000 of property value. That works out to $122 a year for a property with a tax assessed value of $200,000.

 Williams said the plan is to use the levy to hire six additional firefighters in order to have three assigned to an engine 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The district has had a permanent tax rate of 83 cents per $1,000 since 1990. If the levy passes, property owners would pay a total of $1.45 per $1,000. If voters choose not to renew the operating levy in 5 years, the rate drops back to 83 cents. That would also me laying off the six fire fighters hired with the levy.

“This will be the first time in 23 years that the fire district has gone to the voters and asked for money,” Williams said.

Williams says the district works hard to maximize funds, pointing to the recent $830,000 federal grant it received to rehabilitate the 38-year-old fire station. It also bills out of fire district drivers involved in automobile accidents to recoup some costs, he added.

Public Meetings Planned

The Depoe Bay Fire District has scheduled three informational public meetings on the levy at the following dates and locations:

Monday, April 13-6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. 

Gleneden Beach Fire Station

 

Wednesday, April 15-6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. 

Depoe Bay Community Center

 

Wednesday, April 29-6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. 

Otter Rock Fire Station

 

Not Just the Fire Chief

Williams, paraphrasing the old Bosley hair commercial, told councilors he isn’t just the fire chief, he’s also been a recipient of fire services at his own home.

“Luckily on that day I had three people on that engine,” he said. “What I don’t want is citizens in this area to have one person show up.”