Oregon City turns city staff into firefighters to fill shortage

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SUTHERLIN, OREGON — Sutherlin has struggled to find volunteer firefighters to work in its nearly all-volunteer fire department these past two years, so it has come up with a solution: turn city staff into firefighters.

The city gave its employees the option to train as firefighters in exchange for a 15 percent raise. The incentive worked; 11 city employees agreed to become part-time firefighters.

The city originally offered police officers the ability to cross-train as firefighters. Negotiations lasted about six months before officers ultimately declined the offer.

Two lieutenants and Chief Kirk Sanifilippo agreed to cross-train, since they are not part of the same union as the officers.

The city moved to an all-volunteer firefighter department back in 2015 following voters’ decision not to annex into the Douglas County Fire District #2. Since then, it has struggled to find volunteers to accompany its two full-time staff who administer the fire department.

“Volunteers are pretty hard to come by nowadays,” Sanfilippo said.

The city has 11 volunteer firefighters on hand, but they are not always available to take a call; only half of them show up when they are needed. City Manager Jerry Gillham said it takes at least 15 firefighters to respond to an average fire.

With this new program, the fire department has two full-time administrators, three people from the police department, and 11 city employees, in addition to the volunteers.

That should be enough to cover the roughly 200 calls a year the city receives, Sanfilippo said.

Sanfilippo said Sutherlin is the only city in Oregon that he knows of that uses this model of firefighting. He modeled it after Sunnyvale, California, where he worked with a cross-trained team of police officers and firefighters.

“We would work patrol for a year or two or three, then we’d go to fire and work for a year or two or three,” he recalled.

The model provides a cost-savings benefit, he said, and it helps with retention.

“The value of having permanent employees is we’re not going anywhere,” Sanfilippo said. “We’re going to be here for a year or two or 10 to come because this is our job. This is what we do for a living. The fire part is just a side duty that we go to when there’s a demand.”

Gillham said it would have cost the city about $1.4 million to join the county fire district. The annexation contract was priced at $990,000 and the costs associated with bringing equipment and infrastructure up to par amounted to $500,000.

The city also could have moved to a fully employed fire department. That would have cost about $1.3 million for seven to nine firefighters, he estimated.

The new model will cost around $550,000 for employment and training and $500,000 for equipment upkeep, so $1.1 million total. That is within the city’s budget.

The new fire team keeps in contact through a smartphone app. They get notifications on their phones when a call comes in. Then they could mark whether or not they are responding to the fire.

Employees are about a week away from completing their training. Although they have taken to it successfully, Sanfilippo said the new model will take some getting used to.

“It’s a difficult transition if you’ve never done it,” he said. “Very difficult. Because the public doesn’t understand it.”

He said he and his two lieutenants keep their firefighting uniforms in the trunks of their cars. So when a fire strikes, they hop out of their police uniforms and transform into firefighters on the spot.