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Fire agencies to take first serious look at consolidation

Upcoming study will explore partnership options for six westside agencies


by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - Gaston Fire Chief Roger Mesenbrink has indicated he will step down sometime around December or January after 49 years as a firefighter: I want to leave here loving this place.Fire services across western Washington County are taking the first step toward what could be a huge transformation amid rising medical calls and, in some rural areas, falling volunteer numbers.

On the most basic level, the transformation will start with the Gaston Rural Fire District, where Roger Mesenbrink confirmed this will be his last summer as chief. While not giving a specific retirement date, Mesenbrink said that it “could be real close to” the beginning of the next calendar year.

And in the Banks Fire District, Chief Brian Coussens also plans to retire in the “not too distant future,” he said. “It could be five months. It could be a year and a half.”

Their impending retirements dovetail coincidentally with a long-planned study on what kind of “partnership” arrangement might best serve four western Washington County fire agencies overseen by Chief Michael Kinkade: Forest Grove Fire & Rescue, Cornelius Fire Department and the rural fire protection districts attached to those two cities.

The Banks and Gaston fire districts recently asked to be added to that study and each of the six districts is now contributing $8,000 to $10,000 to its cost.

An RFP (Request for Proposal) will go out in the next few weeks, according to Kinkade, who hopes to award the consulting contract in early July and expects the study to take four to six months.

One of the partnership models to be considered is consolidation, which would merge the six agencies into one large “West End Fire District,” similar to Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue on the county’s east side. Other options could include shared training, joint purchasing, a fire authority and more.

If the consultant recommended consolidation and the various fire boards approved it, Kinkade said, it would take at least two to four years to put into place.

Meanwhile, Gaston Fire is considering whether to contract with Kinkade for “fire chief services” after Mesenbrink steps down, in the same way Cornelius did after former Cornelius Fire Chief Chris Asanovic retired at the end of 2010.

Kinkade said his first year in “contract for fire chief services” with Cornelius was an experiment and had an automatic sunset provision, but turned out to be so successful that they changed the provision to an automatic renewal.

Any contract with Gaston could be similarly temporary, with an escape clause if either the Gaston or Forest Grove communities didn’t like it, said Kinkade, who explained the arrangement to the Gaston Fire Board four weeks ago, at the invitation of its members.

In addition to a contract with Kinkade, the board is also considering the possibility of sharing a full-time chief with Banks, said Board President Phil Anderson.

A third option would be to hire a new part-time chief. But that could be difficult, Anderson said, because the most qualified people “are quite often looking for advancement in larger agencies” with better work conditions and money (the current part-time position pays $36,000 and offers no benefits).

Mesenbrink, who lives in the Gaston area and had already retired from the Hillsboro Fire Department when he agreed to help Gaston choose a chief in 2001, said he ended up taking the job because the applicant pool was too unqualified.

Out of the three options for replacing Mesenbrink, the most logical would be to connect with Kinkade and FGF&R, Anderson said. “Geographically, they’re close to us. We have a good working relationship with their agencies. Our firefighters and their firefighters engage in mutual aid so everybody knows everybody. We’ve done cooperative training in the past. So it’s a pretty good fit.”

It would depend on cost, timing, Kinkade’s willingness to take the position and whether Forest Grove and Cornelius city councils approved of the idea, Anderson said.

If Gaston Fire hired Kinkade for a trial run of providing “fire chief services,” he could continue indefinitely if it worked well or temporarily until another fire chief was hired (if the board decided to go back to the old model) — or until a different partnership system was created.

While the partnership study’s outcome is still uncertain, Mesenbrink thinks the stars are lining up for consolidation. “We need a West End Fire District,” he said, and the upcoming study is the first serious movement toward making it happen after “that can has been kicked down the road for 25 years.”

Mesenbrink, who turns 65 this month, said he originally planned to retire this summer, but when he heard about the partnership study, he wanted to be involved and will stay on until the study ends.

Coussens, 57, said he’d commit to staying on in Banks as long as necessary to ensure a smooth transition to whatever form of government his board chooses. Consolidation “does seem to be the wave of the future,” he said.

Fire agencies across the state and the nation are looking at consolidation, driven by the rising cost of fire services and the money-saving efficiencies that come from sharing resources and administrative costs.

Gaston Fire’s volunteer numbers, for example, have dropped from a high of 38 in the 1970s (according to firefighter Jerry Hoodenpyl) to 22, going from the high 20s to the low 20s in just the past seven years, according to Lt. Training Officer Clay Davis.

And only about four of those live in the “core” downtown area near the fire station, Mesenbrink said: “We’re beating the heck out of three to four people.”

Occasionally not even three or four are readily available, meaning FGF&R is sometimes the first agency on the scene.

FGF&R, however, is overflowing with volunteers and interns. But it can’t share any with Gaston unless there is some kind of serious partnership between the two agencies, Kinkade said.

Consolidation might not be the final answer to Gaston’s dwindling volunteers and FGF&R’s rising call numbers, Kinkade said, but some kind of partnership is likely.




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