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Sweet Home fire district seeks improved radio tech

By Benny Westcott
Of The New Era/Lebanon Local

Sweet Home Fire & Ambulance District Chief Nick Tyler reported to the fire board Tuesday, Feb. 21, that the district can’t communicate effectively in town, much less along the Highway 20 corridor, with its current radios, which it inherited from the Albany Fire Department and the Polk County Fire District some 20 years ago.

He further explained that according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health’s fire service line of duty death investigations, a lack of communication, specifically with radios, was one of the most consistent causes of failures. For that reason, he said, they were a major district priority.

“It’s one of those things that keeps me awake at night,” he said.

Battalion Chief Shannon Pettner recently applied for a $750,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance grant to improve the district’s radio technology.

Through Bluetooth, radios would be “married” to a firefighter’s self-contained breathing apparatus, which would pick up audio from within rather than outside a face mask, where an airpack’s breathing noises could hinder communication.

“If we buy this specific type of radio,” Tyler said, “we could talk on a handheld radio all the way up the Highway 20 corridor and be able to talk to our county dispatch.”

Tyler had already witnessed how such technology improved communications during his 15 years with the Lebanon Fire District.

“I’m hearing-impaired, and it was amazing when we switched to that in Lebanon,” he recalled. “I could hear the people talk on the radio and didn’t have to concentrate on what they were trying to say. And it really cleaned up communications.”

Tyler said that Pettner was also applying for FEMA’s three-year Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant to fund full-time firefighters for three years. He and Pettner are currently discussing that number for the application, with Tyler suggesting nine employees.

“When you look at what that does to our daily staffing, it gets us a lot more in line with where we need to be looking at in 10 years,” he said. “There’s not going to be enough increase in the budget in three years to pay for those positions. So we would have to start looking at an operational levy to maintain services and keep those guys on.”

Tyler outlined another challenge.

“In today’s world, it’s a daunting task to even consider hiring nine, when nobody can recruit,” he said. “I was talking to Lebanon (Fire District) the other day, and they were begging for people. So hopefully if we were awarded that, the job market improves and there’s more people out there looking for jobs.”

Another consideration: paramedics vs. emergency medical technicians. According to Tyler, EMTs outnumber paramedics, and departments save money by hiring the former.

“It’s one of those things that you need to make sure you get right, because you’re hiring hopefully a 20-year person,” he said. “Whatever certifications you want, that’s what you need to have.”

Also at the meeting:

— Deputy Fire Chief George Virtue discussed “two calls in the last month where I was shocked we didn’t have six fatalities.”

On Feb. 16 a car drove off the road and rolled down a steep embankment near Milepost 48 on Highway 20. The occupants, all in their late teens, from Lake Oswego and California, were not seriously injured and two of them were able to get out on their own.

“Luckily there were two or three trees there to catch them,” he said. “Otherwise, I think we’d have three dead teenagers at the bottom of the river there.”

Virtue noted a trend of crashes in the area.

“It seems like we’re going up to Menear’s Bend every week now,” he said.

Board President Dawn Mitchell asked if the area would benefit from better signage. Tyler replied that the Oregon Department of Transportation had recently installed more visible signs.

“Obviously, it’s not working,” Mitchell said.

Tyler suggested that the district could use its leverage to improve the situation.

“We could submit a letter on behalf of that and try to get some signage changed on it,” he said. “The corner leading up to Menear’s Bend if you’re headed east is the same miles per hour as Menear’s Bend. People can navigate that a lot faster, so they go into Menear’s Bend a lot faster than they should.”

“Part of it is it’s not banked right, either,” Board Member Rob Younger added. “It’s so flat right there rather than being banked. It’s a lot like milepost 58. Both of them are just not banked right. You can either have bad wrecks that come out of milepost 58 or Menear’s Bend, one of those two.”

He said that half of the wreck calls he responded to as a SHFAD volunteer took place at one of those two locations.

The other call involved an early morning Feb. 11 fire at 2454 Long St., where three residents and a cat escaped a two-bedroom home without the benefit of a smoke alarm.

“Luckily those three people got out,” Virtue said. “I don’t really know how they did. They felt the heat. All three of them had to run right by the fire to get out.”

The district determined that the fire was caused by an upholstered chair too close to a gas furnace. Property damage was estimated at $6,000.

♦ Tyler reported that a vehicle ran over one of the district’s new $20,000 cots, catching its wheels under a front tire while being moved at a house. The incident happened at the 1200 block of 44th Avenue at 5 a.m. on Feb. 1.

“Our guys didn’t make any mistakes,” he said. “There was a staircase going into the front door and they had it sitting there. With as much technology and moving parts as there are in that, we took it out of service to be inspected. The best-case scenario is that a new wheel and new wheel adapter is all it’s going to take. Hopefully the frame’s not bent or anything like that.”

♦ Tyler reported on a nearly complete Station 21 kitchen remodel.

“It looks wonderful,” he said. “I couldn’t have been happier when I came back off vacation and it looked the way it did. I’ve stared at it now for two days.”

♦ Tyler shared that former chief Dave Barringer will perform a final inspection this spring on a new fire engine to be used in wildland urban interface settings.

“He started the project,” he said. “It’s kind of his baby.”

Tyler said he would also ask Crawfordsville volunteer Virgil Croft to go on the trip.

♦ Tyler shared that the district had received $185,000 for Ground Emergency Medical Transportation (GEMT) services from the state.

♦ Larry Johnson was unanimously voted to fill the board vice president role after the Dec. 31 resignation of 20-year board veteran Tim Geil. Official board officer elections are scheduled in July.

Younger nominated Johnson.

“I just think with his experience and all he would be the logical choice,” he said.

A former volunteer firefighter, Johnson, who has been on the board since 2009, served with the original rescue squad for more than 20 years in Sweet Home. He was also a teacher, coach, athletic director and administrator in the Sweet Home School District for 35 years. Johnson has been Junior First Citizen and First Citizen and a recipient of the Keith Gabriel Memorial Award. He is also in the Oregon Athletic Directors Hall of Fame. Currently, he serves as a supervisor for the Oregon Jamboree and participates in projects for Sweet Home High School and its alumni association.

♦ The district responded to 306 medical calls in January with a 57% transport rate, down from 62% in December 2022.

“We’ll be keeping an eye on that and seeing if we can track trends, or why that’s dropping,” Tyler said.

♦ The district’s income for the month of January was $261,431.41. Expenses were $795,659.34. The district’s net income was -$534,227.93.