- Associated Press - Friday, September 25, 2015

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) - Josephine County is again considering a plan to create a fire protection ordinance that deals with private fire companies, whose uneasy co-existence has dogged rural firefighting for three decades.

The ordinance, in draft form at this point, has yet to make the agenda of a weekly business session of the Board of Commissioners, and it could be months before commissioners vote on anything, said board Chairman Keith Heck.

The proposal calls for a host of regulations, including firefighter safety standards, background checks, and certifications, along with the creation of a board to oversee the ordinance.

Because there is no publicly funded fire district covering much of the rural area surrounding Grants Pass, Josephine County is the only area in Oregon, and possibly the entire nation, where two private firefighting companies vie for business.

Critics say the ordinance is aimed at County Fire Department, also known as County Fire & Security, a small private company in Merlin that competes with Rural/Metro Fire Department, which has more than 11,000 subscribers, seven stations, a dozen supervisors and more than 40 firefighters.

Rural/Metro has a long track record of solid performance, but also costs twice as much for subscribers. Last year, it absorbed over 1,000 customers of the now-defunct Grants Pass Rural Fire Department, another private fire protection company that folded in 2014.

Heck said it isn’t about singling out County Fire, and that public safety is the driving force.

“There is no effort to get rid of County Fire. That has never entered my mind,” Heck said. “That’s a smokescreen.

“We’re just trying to assure they’re both on the same page as every other company that’s working in Josephine County. And the No. 2 goal is to make sure the county isn’t liable in any way for not having some of these rules and regulations, in case there is a fire and somebody is injured.”

For many years, Rural/Metro had conflicts with Grants Pass Rural, including disputes over who was to fight a fire that was already underway. Grants Pass Rural, which relied heavily on volunteers, folded after years of struggling to keep up with rising costs and safety standards.

The saga has continued with County Fire. Earlier this year Rural/Metro called the Oregon State Police, saying County Fire was blocking its access to a fire.

Up to now, the Rogue Valley Fire Chiefs Association has not been willing to work with County Fire on mutual aid agreements for firefighting, although they recently were allowed on the board as a member. County Fire is also not part of the local 911 dispatch system.

“They don’t meet standards for mutual aid,” said Mike Shaw of Rural/Metro.

Deputy Fire Chief Lang Johnson of Grants Pass Fire and Rescue, a division of the city’s public safety department, said the fire ordinance proposal is the result of a letter sent by the chiefs association in January 2014 asking the county to revisit private fire standards.

Johnson said the issue at the time was the wildfires in 2013 that came close to spreading to areas in the county not protected by fire districts. That created potential for uncoordinated interaction between private companies and public agencies from around the state sent to help.

“It had nothing to do with any specific private agency,” Johnson said. “It’s part of the ongoing saga of private fire companies that’s gone on for three decades. It’s the continuing situation. You can put a sign on your pickup truck, put a tank in the bed and say it’s ‘Jeff’s Fire Service.’ There’s no public oversight.”

Josephine County residents voted down a proposal to create one fire district for the county in 2007, and another similar effort didn’t make it to the ballot in 2010.

Efforts to enact an ordinance setting minimum standards for all local fire departments, public or private, also failed in 1998 and 1991.

Phil Turnbull, chief of Rural/Metro, said the latest effort isn’t about uprooting County Fire.

“They have as much right to be in business as we do,” Turnbull said. “But there are no rules of engagement or public accountability for how service is delivered.”

County Fire has given a copy of the ordinance to local attorney Duane Schultz. Schultz declined to talk about specifics in the proposed ordinance, but said he and Josephine County Legal Counsel Wally Hicks will be meeting, along with commissioners and representatives from County Fire.

“There are significant issues,” Schultz said. “I’m hoping we can get these resolved cooperatively up front.”

The Daily Courier was unable to reach County Fire’s Administration Chief Dan Trader, who was in Washington fighting a wildfire. But in a recent interview on the website badcounty.com, operated by Dale Matthews, Trader said his company is being targeted.

“That’s what this is all about, regardless of the other companies and agencies, is they’re saying we’re not qualified to do what we do and allow our subscribers to sign up for,” Trader said.

County Fire opened up shop in 2012, after Inland Fire disbanded.

The company this year received an improved rating of 6 from the Insurance Service Organization, as did most other local fire departments.

Trader said in the Matthews interview that three retired fire chiefs spent a day looking at the company’s equipment and training manuals, leading to that improved ISO rating. Rural/Metro is a 5, the best rating available in areas without fire hydrants.

Supporters of County Fire also say that the company is being targeted.

Jan Slusser, who lives outside Merlin, and her husband Ray pay $120 a year to County Fire vs. the $270 they paid Rural/Metro the previous year. They were with Inland before that. County Fire charges per square footage, while Rural/Metro charges based on assessed property value.

“They’ve thrown up so many roadblocks with County Fire; it’s so one-sided it’s unbelievable,” said Slusser, who’s still waiting to air her concerns to the commissioners in a public hearing.

“They keep setting it back because they’ve got wind there are 500 people that are real unhappy about it, and are going to attend these meetings.


Information from: Daily Courier, https://www.thedailycourier.com

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