Dorena’s Dilemma Part II


Rural volunteer firefighters face hurdles to reaching official status as a fire agency

Starting a fire district is no small feat, but that may be the challenge ahead for those wanting improved fire protection in the rural community of Dorena.

Seeking to address this need, residents in the area began forming their own unofficial volunteer fire department a couple years ago.

Spearheading the project is resident Dan Holt, who has restored a 1962 Ford C850 fire engine and offers it up as part of the volunteer firefighting service.

Fellow resident George Swain, motivated by the Holiday Farm Fire in 2020, took the approach of building his own 300-gallon water trailer, complete with a pump to douse any fires he encounters.

Many more of these water trailers and firefighting vehicles exist in the rural area, too. Considering this, Holt has said he’s content with how the volunteer group and community have developed fire protection.

“What we’ve got is probably better than most rural fire departments because all these water trailers are spaced probably no more than four miles apart in our 15-mile fire district here,” he said. “We’re pretty well prepared for any fire that comes up.”

South Lane Count Fire and Rescue (SLCFR) also has contracted some 50 fire suppression agreements in the area in which homeowners pay a fee for service, though not all feel the agency’s response time is worth the price of the contract.

All things considered, while Dorena has a mix of fire coverage options, fast, reliable and safe fire responses will likely depend on some kind of improvement to the current system.

Challenges

While Holt feels the volunteer group has achieved what it set out to do, it’s clear that more training, equipment and personnel would improve the group’s firefighting effectiveness. Access to those improvements, however, is hindered largely by liability hurdles.

Holt acknowledges this is an issue, explaining that firefighting volunteers would be operating at their own risk as there is no insurance coverage for the group. Instead, he is counting on the good nature of those he might potentially help to refrain from litigious action.

He often cites Good Samaritan Law and, though Oregon does indeed have Good Samaritan Law under ORS 30.800, the statute provides protection for “medically trained persons” and would not protect people from legal liability resulting from a victim’s injury if the aid provider is rendering care outside of their level of training.

“When somebody calls 911 and we’re dispatched … everybody’s trained and certified to be there,” explained SLCFR’s Chief John Wooten of his agency’s responses. “They have the proper equipment, they have the training to use that equipment, that equipment is backed by an NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) standard.”

Crucially, the fire agency also has liability insurance.

“If a hose bursts and slaps somebody in the head and they wind up dying or they wind up with permanent deficits from the brain injury … there’s no Good Samaritan Law that applies to that,” said Wooten, emphasizing the importance of being covered. “And it’s not just the property owner that can come after them legally. It’s the insurance company that ensures that house or if anybody gets hurt.”

Such liability issues are part of the reason fire districts have been reluctant to offer proper training to the Dorena volunteers, too.

Wooten explained the dilemma:

“If we go out there and provide training for one of them, we are certifying that the training we provided meets the NFPA standard for a firefighter. And the reason that we’re liable is, court cases have held that the trainer or the training agency or the certifying agency can be held liable — and have been held liable when something went wrong on a scene and somebody did something the wrong way after they were supposedly trained to do it.

“If I agreed to go out there and provide them training and something happens with an uncertified piece of hose, or they go into a fire, or the house falls on them, or they get themselves or somebody else killed in the process, when the lawsuits start, we get dragged into that, because we provided that training,” said Wooten.

Fire departments also provide workers’ compensation for those injured on the job. Should a Dorena volunteer get injured and lose work due to the injury, they may have little recourse aside from litigation to get compensation.

Another issue will simply be having the personnel to respond.

There are currently around 10 people with vehicles and another 10 volunteers on the group’s roster, though there are many more privately-owned vehicles capable of fighting fires in the area.

Swain suggested that the liability concern is one reason not everyone with a fire trailer or truck is willing to be part of the volunteer group, content with looking after their own land.

Also, because the Dorena volunteer firefighters are not an organized legal entity, they are not eligible to be dispatched by the 911 Center.

SLCFR pays almost $300,000 per year to be dispatched to 5,000 calls through the center. 

“So, if you’re being dispatched by that center, you’re paying for that service,” said Wooten. “And in order to be eligible for that service, you have to be an organized entity.”

In considering room for improvement, Holt has said he would like to see more coordination with SLCFR.

But, again, liability issues make such cooperation between unofficial brigades and official agencies too risky for those agencies. Official agencies operate according to a specific standard and only cooperate with other agencies which also use that standard.

“When we sign mutual aid agreements with our neighboring agencies, those mutual aid agreements are assurances that they have liability insurance, their people have all been trained, and they hold the proper credentials to be sitting in the seat and doing the thing they’re doing,” said Wooten. “And that’s how we have to operate. So, we can’t operate with an entity that doesn’t do that.”

The lack of coordination, too, poses its own risks should both organizations show up to the same fire and one blocks the other.

“And at the point that they’re in our way, we will either pull our people back, or law enforcement can cite them for being in our way,” explained Wooten. “I don’t want that to happen. That’s obviously not what we want. But that’s the way the situation exists right now.”

Reaching a point where the two groups cooperate would require the volunteers to find finding a way to that official status.

Until then, SLCFR cannot provide any support to them legally without exposing its own agency to a great deal of liability.

Searching for Solutions

Wooten recommended a good starting point for the Dorena firefighters would be to form a volunteer fire department officially — whether that’s an LLC or a nonprofit organization — and go through motions to create a legal entity that has liability insurance.

“They have to have some form of liability insurance before anybody’s going to help them. Every fire department in the state of Oregon has to have liability insurance,” he said.

One possible pathway to this option would be to offer up a ballot measure to voters so residents can decide on structuring a fire department.

Such a proposal to make a taxing district in the area did make it to the ballot decades ago, but it was voted down.

“When it comes to life and safety, those things are priceless,” said Lane County Commissioner Heather Buch of the option. “But also, to put up a new taxing district, you have to have the buy-in of your neighbors who will vote on that.”

Creating a taxing district may not be the only option on the table and county officials are currently working to find what alternatives there might be.

There are examples in Oregon of grassroots, community-led fire districts such as the Alfalfa Fire District outside Bend, the Colestin Rural Fire District south of Ashland and the Greensprings Rural Fire District near the heart of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. These districts subsist on funding through various means like donations, grants, membership dues and county tax levies.

Whatever the solution, Wooten said the possibilities for Dorena fire protection could expand greatly if residents eventually do choose to officially organize.

“If they were to form an actual fire brigade up there — legally form an entity, even if it was taxing or not — then we could provide mutual aid to them, we could provide training to them, we could provide surplus equipment to them,” he said. “There’s a lot of things, a lot of doors that would open for them that are not open right now.”

Finding a solution could have implications for more than just Dorena, too. There are other unprotected pockets in need of a fire district all over the state which could benefit from looking at successful models.

“It’s a conversation that lots of places are having now, especially in light of the recent fires we’ve been seeing,” said Buch. “It’s a big concern for a lot of people that are out in that wild, urban area that maybe aren’t part of a special district.”

In early April, county officials, local stakeholders and a representative from the Special Districts Association of Oregon will hold a meeting to discuss options for Dorena’s fire coverage.

“The county’s role is really to help facilitate the conversation with special districts and rural residents that don’t have coverage and to come together and seek what potential possibilities there are, to ensure that they have basic life safety needs met,” Buch said. “We don’t know what all those answers are going to be yet.”

Buch hopes, though, that she can take what is learned from this process and share it with other communities which need protection.

As many options remain to be explored, The Sentinel will continue reporting on this topic as it develops.

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