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Fire district addresses safety concerns before two fire trucks are moved from Falls City

The Southwest Polk Rural Fire Protection District is set to move two rural fire trucks from the Falls City Fire Department on Tuesday amid contract negotiations. The district says safety will not be jeopardized but the city manager says they'll have less capability.

A mother in Falls City told KATU she fears for her family's safety after learning the city's fire department is losing two rural fire trucks.

The Southwest Polk Rural Fire Protection District owns the vehicles. April Welsh, a spokeswoman for the agency, said public safety won't be impacted because the trucks are just being moved and will still be available to serve the city as needed. She also said Falls City will still have two other trucks of its own.

Terry Ungricht, the city manager, said the trucks they'll have left are meant for urban areas and not for reaching homes along dirt roads or in harder-to-reach places.

All of this is happening because contract negotiations have reached an impasse between the fire district, which owns the trucks being removed, and the Falls City Fire Department.

"Those trucks need to be here for our community," said Jennifer Wright, who lives on a hill at the end of a long, muddy driveway in Falls City with her husband, two young kids and some animals.

"Three cows, three horses, 18 chickens --- we got a lot," Wright said.

She's worried about her family and the community's well-being after the fire district takes away its two rural fire trucks and an SUV on Tuesday.

That will leave the city with its own two trucks that Ungricht said have limited capabilities.

"Our equipment's more designed for urban firefighting where you have fire hydrants to hook up to, stuff like that," Ungricht said. "And our equipment's also not designed for super muddy roads."

The rural trucks will be moved to stations in Dallas or possibly Rickreall, which are about 20 minutes to a half-hour away.

"There's no way that I can wait 25 minutes for an emergency," Wright said.

Ungricht said the city and the fire district had an agreement for 80 years. Under it, the city has fought fires within about a five-mile radius and the district's provided equipment.

But over the summer the contract between them expired and negotiations broke down.

Ungricht said the city wants more money.

"We want an (increase) on that and they want us to better report fires within their district," Ungricht explained.

Welsh said there's a lot more to it than that.

“We do have to adhere to a national reporting standard and those reports were not being done and they were actually years behind," she said. "We (also) had some pretty significant liability issues brought to our attention."

Welsh said the Falls City Fire Department hasn't been accredited by the state's Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST) since 2011 and that since 2015, three police reports have been filed over allegations involving volunteer firefighters.

"I believe that we need to provide our citizens with a more professional service," Welsh explained.

She also said the district partners with Oregon's Department of Forestry (ODF), which frequently has mobile units in the area, though she couldn't say how quickly they could respond and ODF said their capabilities are limited.

Jim Gersbach, an ODF spokesman, told KATU via email Tuesday, "ODF’s mission is to fight wildland fires – not structural fires. As such, our personnel are trained and certified for fighting forest fires and grass/brush fires. Our personnel are not dispatched to put out structural fires. That is the responsibility of the relevant municipal or rural fire department."

"Citizens are going to see very little change in the response time," Welsh said Friday. "We had a study done last year and the numbers for response times were consistent straight across the board."

Ungricht said the city's fire department became accredited with DPSST within the past month, a claim DPSST later disputed.

Falls City Fire Department Chief Bob Young, who was unavailable for comment Friday, told KATU on Tuesday that all of the agency's firefighters have been certified with DPSST.

Julie Olsen-Fink, DPSST's fire program manager, could not verify Young's claim on Tuesday. She told a KATU reporter that the Falls City Fire Department is still not accredited. She said the agency called DPSST recently and that they're going to schedule an appointment soon to review records.

Young said prior to the expiration of the contract, the district paid them $24,000 annually to offset costs. In May, Young said the district told the fire department they wanted to charge them $36,000 a year to take on the agency's administrative tasks. If not, Young said the district threatened to take back the trucks and other equipment. Young said the fire department has an annual budget of around $60,000. Welsh did not immediately respond to requests for comment regarding Young's claims on Tuesday.

Ungricht said one volunteer was suspended in 2015 as police investigated him over a case that was eventually thrown out.

Polk County Sheriff Mark Garton, meanwhile, said the district attorney's office is considering possible charges against four of Falls City's volunteer firefighters over off-the-job sexual misconduct allegations involving minors. Garton said the allegations were reported in March and April.

Young said all four of the firefighters, who have not been charged with crimes, were suspended and two of them were dismissed in May over other issues.

Welsh admitted the contract negotiations were initiated because of the expiration of the contract and not because of the alleged sexual misconduct allegations, which the district discovered later.

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