Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue has received a federal grant to hire three full-time firefighters for two years. They’ll be on the payroll by late February, the fire chief said. Things are happening quickly for the fire district, which also in recent months has secured funding to convert its unused Station Two — in Columbia View Heights — into a manned station, and build a training tower.
Both of those construction projects will be paid for with fees that Google agreed to pay to local governments in lieu of paying property taxes for a period of time on the new data storage center it will build at its campus in The Dalles.
The new federal grant, for $612,282, does not require any local matching funds, said Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue Chief Bob Palmer.
“This is a boon for us,” Palmer said. He credited Division Chief Dave Lapof, the main author of the grant.
The district has 90 days to hire its personnel. It established its latest hiring list — or civil service list — back in July, and the list is good for 30 months. The 15 people on the list all took written and physical tests, and also took an oral exam. They are ranked on the list by how well they completed the tests.
The fire district will interview the top five people from the list, Palmer said, and will pick the three employees from those top five.
The fire district completed a strategic plan earlier this year, and having the strategic plan helped get the grant, Palmer said. One of the goals listed in the strategic plan was finding other means of hiring people, including seeking grants.
But Palmer said the district realistically won’t be able to retain the employees beyond the grant period because it doesn’t have the money to keep them.
“Honestly, we haven’t been able to fund additional positions and I don’t see how we’ll be able to do that unless we get additional tax funds over what we’ve been getting.”
The district’s revenues from taxes typically go up 3 percent each year, since that’s the growth that’s allowed under state law. To get more than that 3 percent would require increased development in the district, and that hasn’t been occurring, he said.
The district’s ambulance revenue “isn’t doing us any justice either at this point; it’s staying flat. That’s why we wrote the grant, obviously, to give us an opportunity to help the federal government help us fund these positions, at least for a short period of time,” he said.
Driving the need for added personnel is the decrease in the district’s fire rating some years ago. The dropped rating — an assessment made by an independent entity, whose results are used by most insurance companies — had the impact of raising homeowner and business insurance rates.
Called the ISO rating, it was downgraded for the district because its personnel are only housed at one fire station. In years past, when The Dalles area had two fire departments, the multiple locations for the fire halls satisfied that key element of the rating.
The two districts combined in 1998, but it had been some years since the district was evaluated by ISO, and when it was most recently evaluated, its rating was downgraded.
The remodel of Station Two at Columbia View Heights is not expected to begin until the next fiscal year, which begins in July. Before then, architectural drawings, done with input from firefighters, will be completed, and then the project will go out to bid.
If the construction of Station Two is finished in time, then the grant-funded personnel can be used to help man the station, Palmer said. “As long as we can get the station renovated and redesigned, it’s a definite opportunity that we can take advantage of now,” to man the station, he said. “But things are moving so quickly now. We weren’t expecting [the grant to be awarded] until June.”
“It would’ve given us more time to plan. It’s not that we can’t, we’re just going to have to move things up on our list and with the funds that are coming from Google, I talked to [The Dalles] city manager and he assured us he would work on moving his timeline up as well.”
The Dalles city is passing through Google abatement fees to other local governments.
As for eventually improving its ISO rating by having more personnel disbursed throughout the district, Palmer said the district will have to show a trend of how many personnel are responding to incidents.
“They look at how many firefighters you get on a scene on an average basis, over time.”
“We may be able to show that early on, but we want to make sure that our data reflects what we’re trying to show to ISO, and that is we get the appropriate people on scene that they are requiring to get us back to the level we were at,” Palmer said.
Lapof is also seeking a $160,000 grant to boost volunteer recruitment and retention. Lapof himself is grant-funded, and is completing his first year of a four-year grant.
The grant he’s seeking would pay for marketing, training, insurance benefits for volunteers, and turnouts for them.
The Google fee will also pay for a training tower for the district, which is also a requirement of the ISO rating entity. That funding won’t begin for another two to three years, once Google completes its data storage center.