Outgoing Fire Chief Sletmoe takes look back

By Scott Swanson

Lebanon Local

Gordon Sletmoe relaxes in his office, playing with his new puppy, Scout, thinking about his 37 years in the business of fighting fires.

Well, actually, it’s 37 years and one month. (The outgoing Lebanon Fire District chief is a detail guy.)

Sletmoe, 56, says his career started back in November of 1982, when his mother cut a “little dinky paragraph” advertising the need for volunteer firefighters at the local Tualatin Fire District.

He was 18.

“I started as a volunteer and I never looked back,” he said.

After a year and a half, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, which “was my parallel dream.”

A CIRCA-1984 photo shows Gordon Sletmoe as a young Air Force firefighter.
Photo courtesy of Gordon Sletmoe

 “I was fortunate enough to get a guaranteed job as a firefighter.”

After two years in England, where he married his wife Lisa, whom he’d met in Portland, they moved to  Maine.

“We tell everyone our honeymoon was a year and a half in northern Maine,” Sletmoe said.

When he was discharged in March of 1988, Sletmoe found himself unemployed, “for the first time in my life.”

On a visit to the unemployment office, he mentioned he’d been a firefighter and someone suggested he check out the U.S. Forest Service, which hired him for its fire crew.

Six months later, Sletmoe landed a job as a firefighter at the Medford airport, where he stayed for 3½ years. His Air Force experience, he said, made him a good fit for that job.

In 1992 he got hired by the Medford municipal fire department, where he spent the next 22 years – well, actually, one week short of 22 years.

“I literally hit every single rank, all the way up to and including acting fire chief,” he said. By the end, he was deputy fire chief and had spent 10 months filling in at the top after the sudden departure of the chief.

He decided it was time to relocate and he noticed that Lebanon Fire District was advertising for an assistant fire chief. Reading closely, he realized that whoever got this position would be moving up to the top job when then-Chief Dan Woodson retired.

Sletmoe started with LFD in May 2014 and took over as chief when Woodson retired the next year.
Last year he told the LFD Board of Directors that he was going to step down at the end of 2019.

GORDON SLETMOE, center, stands with personnel of the Lebanon Fire District, which, he says, is fully staffed as he departs.
Photo courtesy of Lebanon Fire District

Sletmoe said it’s time – that he believes things are in good shape at the district and he’s ready for change.

“When you look at 2014 versus 2019, by the numbers, we’ve made significant increases,” he said.

LFD had 33 full-time employees in 2014; now it has 43. The number of volunteers when he arrived was “about 30.” Now it’s 86 – “and this list is an October list – we probably have more than that,” Sletmoe said.

Every management position – lieutenant, battalion chief, division chief, assistant fire chief and fire chief – has been promoted into that position in the last five years, he noted.

Sletmoe said he did his final two swearing-in ceremonies at the November LFD board meeting, bringing the total number of employees he’s sworn in to 27.

“During my tenure we’ve had this tremendous influx of new blood, new talent, new energy from existing employees, upward mobility. And that stuff is really exciting,” he said.

Financially, the district is stable and voters passed a 26-year $16 million Lebanon Fire District bond to replace the main fire station at its current location on Oak Street.

New Chief Joseph Rodondi, from northern California, is coming into a department in which all positions are filled and promotional lists are set, Sletmoe said.

“The budget is set, our agreements with the union are solid, our agreements with our neighboring agencies are set and solid, our equipment’s in good shape, and I feel like the district’s in a good place in the community. Our level of community engagement is at an all-time high also.”

Examples of that include public education, public information, public fire and safety inspections.

“There’s this other, non-measurable thing out there, which is just how engaged are we in the community, and it is really high. I feel like, generally speaking, the community appreciates us and we appreciate the community. We have good rapport with our community.”

In particular, the fire district’s relationship with the City of Lebanon is “really good,” he added.

“We work with them seamlessly on some stuff and on some stuff we work with them almost as though we were a city department. An example is our IT services (for which the district contracts with the city). It’s not like they’re an outside contractor. They treat us like family and whatever we need, we get.”

Though he has numbers to prove his points, Sletmoe said “what’s more important to me is employee engagement, employee satisfaction, high-quality new hires, high-quality promotions and community engagement. That’s what really matters.

“When think about it, the thing I’m most happy about is, at least from my perception, the level of employee engagement and employee satisfaction – and I’ve been told it’s at an all-time high. That makes me really happy.”

So now he’s ready to settle down with his wife and the new puppy – and a new travel trailer – and “sleep in a little later.”

He and his wife have no specific plans, other than to “likely take a couple of months and do nothing.”  He’s also been approached about doing consulting work, which will probably happen, Sletmoe said.

But with all three of their children married and their family scattered around the state and in Japan, he said they plan to focus on that aspect of their lives.

“I’ve given a lot to this career over 37 years,” he said. “I think that now’s a good time for me to give a lot to my family and us together.

“One thing retirement is going to afford us is the ability to drop and go. And when our youngest says, ‘Hey, we’re taking the month of May to travel the Oregon Coast and you should join us,’ now we can say, ‘Sure. Where do we meet?’ That’s pretty exciting.”

Sletmoe will leave with a lot of memories, he said. Among the “thousands” of calls to which he’s responded, some stick out.

He remembers the very first call he responded to as a rookie volunteer in Tualatin.

He remembers the first call he responded to in which “we did CPR on somebody and they didn’t live.”

He remembers his first experience with a defibrillator “and they came back to life.”

He remembers his first time riding the tailboard of a fire engine – something that firefighters no longer do, while another crew member held him as he unbuckled his safety belt to don his turnout gear as the truck rolled down Interstate 5.

“When we went to jump off, I couldn’t because the (safety) belt went through my coat sleeve.” Sletmoe recalled, with a chuckle.

His most vivid memory isn’t funny. It is when, as a deputy chief in Medford, he found himself as the first respondent – while other crew members were at a meeting – to a house fire just a few blocks from the fire station, which turned out to be the location of a murder and attempted-suicide.

“The first red flag was when we had difficulty opening the front door,” he said. Responding firefighters quickly discovered the bodies of an “unconscious, unresponsive”  baby and an adult woman, whom they brought out, then found a man and three other children ages 3 through 6.

The only one who survived was the father, Jordan Criado, who was sentenced in 2013 to life in prison without parole for stabbing and smothering his family – the largest murder-suicide in Oregon history.

“That was a big deal for Medford, for the firefighters, for police, for all of us,” Sletmoe said. I know several of our members struggled in the aftermath of that. You can’t bring out a baby that’s been poisoned and stabbed without it doing something to you.”

Sletmoe leaves with a sense of accomplishment and looking back at a career he found enjoyable.

“Fighting fires is fun,” he said. “There’s a certain thing about it, where you’re crawling into a building and putting a fire out and if there’s no life lost, it’s what we all signed up to do. Saving, being able to help  somebody out.

“You think about all the heroic things, but honestly, there have been times when sometimes the heroic thing that we have done is sit there holding Grandma’s hand because Grandpa just passed away.”

“That stuff makes it pretty meaningful.”