The Dalles Fostering positive working relationships at Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue is a priority objective of its just-completed five-year strategic plan.
Better communications is a key part of that, and several steps have already been taken toward that goal, including forming committees, with firefighters as members, to give staff input on topics ranging from training needs to the current wellness and fitness program.
Firefighters are interested in more hands-on training and practical applications of training, said Fire Chief Bob Palmer.
Another goal is establishing permanent, monthly labor-management meetings.
“We had our first one about a week ago and it went pretty well,” Palmer said.
The district had a contentious union contract negotiation a year ago. Since then, communications have improved, and the strategic planning process itself was beneficial, Palmer said.
Also resulting from the strategic plan is a monthly internal communications bulletin that conveys up-to-date information from administration.
Team-building training is also on the new to-do list.
“I think what it boils down to is communication. Kind of working together to build a more cohesive team,” Palmer said.
The strategic plan, which is similar to a business plan, “gives us long-term direction and focus and the ability to head in a specific direction as opposed to just picking out and establishing goals in an unorganized fashion,” Palmer said.
While better communications and cohesion are goals for the first year of the strategic plan, mid-plan goals are community risk reduction — where goals include forming a home safety survey program — and long-term goals are looking at stabilizing funding for the district.
The district gets two-thirds of its revenue from taxes and a third from ambulance calls. Some 70 percent of its ambulance calls — which are paid for by Medicare or Medicaid, government-paid health insurance — are only reimbursed at about 30 percent of their cost to the district.
Its tax revenue is limited by state laws controlling how big the tax rate can be, and how much of a property’s value can be taxed. It is also impacted by the city’s urban renewal district, which has exclusive rights to taxes on the increase in property values within the urban renewal district. The money is spent on blight removal projects.
Another pressure on fire budgets is the expense of equipment. A ladder truck that cost $462,000 to buy will cost $1 million to replace, for example, Palmer said.
“If we can’t figure out how to bring in more money, over the course of time we’re going to spend our reserve funds down because we’re not replenishing them,” he said.
“It’s not just apparatus, you’ve got people and facility and equipment,” he said.
The strategic plan was the district’s first, and cost $18,000. It will also give the district a leg up in terms of seeking grants, said Fire Board member Tom Ashmore.
Just by showing granting agencies the district has specific goals in mind and a strategy for achieving them, “I think they’ll give us a lot more support,” he said.
He feels the strategic plan was money well spent.
“I think it’s a big step to better operations overall,” he said.
Ashmore hopes the deeper involvement of staff brought about by the strategic planning will ease contentions that arise during contract negotiations.
He said the planning process included community input as well as staff and volunteer input.
“I think it was really a good process to get all parties involved together and try to go in the same direction instead of different directions. Not that we were horribly out of place anyway, I don’t believe that, but it’s kind of nice to make sure you’re all on the same page.”
Funding issues are also a priority, and the plan calls for forming a long-range committee to look at funding stability. Options include expanding the district — possibly to include Mosier — or seeking a bond for equipment or a levy for operating costs.
The plan also has a goal of increasing its volunteer corps to 15. Now it has five volunteers and five in training.
The plan also includes a goal of improving the fire rating for the district. This rating, done by an outside entity and used by home and business insurers to set insurance rates, was downgraded several years ago, causing insurance rates to rise.