Corvallis’ First Responders: Van Gogh Meets Mondrian at the Fire Station
Ever pass by one of Corvallis’ four fire stations and wonder what goes on inside? How the work of firefighting and lifesaving is actually done?
Imagine a painting by Mondrian with a Van Gogh beside it. The Mondrian artwork—primarily black and white and linear, yet somehow confusing and complex—is the administration, the scheduling, the medical training, the firefighting training, the financial logistics, the supply inventory, the cleaning of the station houses, and the buying of the groceries to keep the firefighters fed. The Van Gogh, on the other hand, is the calls. Hewing to reality but somehow surreal, rough and crazy, sometimes mundane, sometimes disturbing, yet also kind of beautiful—that’s the burnt-out transformer, the two fire alarms that interrupt the day’s EMS training, the medical calls to senior living communities, and the call for a heart attack that requires Advanced Life Support. “A lot of what we do, we do under DOGS (Departmental Operating Guidelines). It’s a guideline for decisions and activities and prioritization, but it is just that; it is a guideline,” said Douglas Baily, the Planning and Administration Division Chief. “Situations may require us to go left or right. It’s not linear.”
The Corvallis department is a combination department, meaning it provides both firefighting services and medical services. Any ambulance ride in town is provided by the fire department, not the hospital. The ambulance service area is a vast 765 square miles, ranging from Kings Valley and Summit to Alsea and Monroe. While maintaining and stocking both fire engines and ambulances is expensive—just fueling the vehicles costs about $100,000 per year—the real cost of firefighting is in the staff.
“We’re a people-intensive organization,” said Baily, “There are 66 [full-time employees] that are paid, that includes admin staff, prevention, operations, training, the chief; and roughly 40 volunteers right now between the three groups: community, resident, and interns.”
The department is funded primarily through property taxes—about 70 percent. Ambulance service charges make up another 20 percent and service contracts with rural districts make up the final 10 percent. Still, it’s no picnic making sure that money out matches money in. In January, the department billed $271,756 for ambulance service; only $178,040 came back.
The glamorous side of firefighting—the stuff that makes it into the movies—are the “low frequency, high risk” events. Stuff like cutting someone out of their car with the “Jaws of Life,” or pulling the entire department together to battle a commercial structure fire. But, thankfully, those aren’t the typical events. A typical day for a firefighter involves following the strictly regimented 24-hour shift schedule (7 a.m. to 7 a.m.)—equipment inspection, department briefing, breakfast, then several hours of whatever in-station activity is scheduled for the day (such as firefighting, rescue, or EMS training), lunch around noon, then an afternoon of work that depends on whether the day is A, B, or C shift (B shift, for instance, is responsible for station and building maintenance), with duties ending around 4 p.m. Firefighters respond to calls the entire time, which may be as uneventful as rushing to a fraternity to discover that a fire alarm was activated due to a glitch. After each call is resolved, they return to the station and resume their scheduled work. Around 5 p.m., one of the firefighters cooks dinner and everyone can relax in their home away from home (stations are kitted out with a kitchen and sleeping areas)—in between calls, that is. At 7 a.m. the following morning, the firefighters knock off work, due to return 48 hours later for another 24-hour shift.
Becoming a firefighter is tough; for every 200 candidates, there is about one job opening. Here in Corvallis, the most attractive candidates have not only an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree in Fire Protection or Fire Science, but Emergency Medical Technician certification (EMT classes are offered at Lane Community College in Eugene and Chemeketa Community College in Salem). Those interested in firefighting as a hobby should explore the department’s varied volunteer opportunities: Community Volunteers live at their own residences and do training for about 8 hours per month, and volunteer at least 14 hours per month; Resident Volunteers live at one of the fire stations rent free, and volunteer for one 12-hour shift about every third evening, in addition to two 24-hour shifts per month (this one is a great cost-saving option for students); and Intern Volunteers live at and operate the rural Locke Fire Station in Lewisburg as they train to be Firefighter/Apparatus Operators.