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Cascade Locks fire department out of service following Pricher resignation

July 16, 2011

CASCADE LOCKS - The fire hall is locked up and the ambulance and engines remain parked inside.

The City of Cascade Locks, at least for now, has no functioning fire department, following the early July resignation of former Fire Chief Jeff Pricher.

Fire mutual aid agreements with neighboring districts are at stake, as well as the certifications of volunteer firefighters, who are not responding to fire calls, Mayor George Fischer stated in a letter to area officials on July 14.

An emergency city council meeting was scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday, July 15, to discuss the fire protection situation in the city, Fischer said Friday.

Friday's meeting comes one week after the departure of interim city administrator Rich Carson, who was on a month-to-month contract.

The Friday meeting on the fire department is one of two major public meetings this weekend for the council: on Saturday at 9 a.m. the council will interview Neil Obringer and Eric Strahl, the two finalists for the city administrator job.

Meanwhile, the city will send a letter to Cascade Locks volunteers today ordering them to return to duty by responding to the Cascade Locks administration, or be dismissed for cause. The city consulted with state Deputy Fire Marshal Ted Megert in drafting the letter.

Also, on July 14 the chiefs of the other five fire districts notified Cascade Locks by letter that all mutual aid agreements are terminated within 30 days, because Cascade Locks has no chief and volunteers are not responding.

Hood River Fire Chief Devon Wells said that, at Fischer's request, Hood River will provide backup, "to a point."

"We're not jeopardizing any of our responses to Hood River or our service area," Wells said, and the city would be billed for ambulance calls and other services.

"I am doing everything I can to try and ensure the citizens of Cascade Locks are covered in their time of need," Fischer said.

"Everyone in Hood River County is aware of the situation and has a keen desire to help Cascade Locks," Wells said.

"The point is we are maintaining our own level of service."

West Side Fire Marshal Jim Trammell said, "Cascade Locks has to provide its own service. This is a hard decision for us."

Under mutual aid agreements, "we can come help you if you're there but we can't take responsibility of your department," Trammell said.

Volunteers had warned city council in June that firefighters would not respond to calls if Pricher was let go, but the city is taking a strict approach.

"Failure of the fire department to respond is unacceptable," said Megert, who met Thursday with Fischer and with local fire chiefs.

Megert said, "They took an oath, and that oath is real. They are public officials and they are not doing their duty."

Megan Webb of the volunteer association said, "We have several feelings against decisions that have been made, most importantly (against) the ... full-time paid fire chief.

"We have given the city council several opportunities to speak with the volunteers as a whole and none of those options have been taken advantage of."

Webb said the association emailed the council and mayor Thursday night asking to have a meeting with the volunteers; the city had not yet responded to the request, except for one member of city council, Lance Masters.

"They have stopped responding because we feel our safety is at jeopardy," Webb said. "We have no one there in an administrative role to take care of vehicle maintenance, keep our certification up to date, nobody in leadership. We lost our leader; we lost our backbone.

"We took a verbal oath," Webb said. "However, when our safety is at jeopardy how can we ensure we will be able to provide services safely for the people we will be responding to? If something on a vehicle malfunctions we would make ourselves another accident."

Wells said he will work with Cascade Locks to try to get a "something more formalized" in place for Hood River to provide coverage.

Trammell noted that the mutual aid agreements involve reciprocity - agencies providing services or resources to support each other, in return for similar support in the future.

"It is not our fiduciary responsibility to provide service to a governmental institution that should provide that service themselves," Trammell said, citing the mutual aid agreement itself as "the means for one jurisdiction to provide resources, facilities, services and other required support to another jurisdiction from which they expect to receive or to which they expect to provide assistance during an incident."

Webb said the situation is "very stressful."

"I hope it can be resolved soon. We understand we took an oath. It's been very hard and a lot of discussion on what actions we should take as volunteers. We have a moral obligation to respond, and a duty to respond. It all comes down to safety and having someone there in that administration."

Fischer sent an email to Pricher asking him to return city-owned items, including keys, computer, passwords and entry codes to the old and new fire stations.

Fischer told Pricher that these items "are not returned within one week, the city will initiate all appropriate legal remedies."

Pricher , who was out of state on Friday, resigned after six years as fire chief, effective July 8, after cuts were made to his salary and fire department in the 2011-12 city budget.

Pricher said Friday he will be back in Cascade Locks Monday and will turn in the belongings, but he said the legal warnings of the letter were unwarranted.

"As much as I have done for the community," Pricher said. "It's not like I got arrested or had to leave under some distressing circumstance."

Fischer said he informed Pricher that, under city personnel rules, Pricher must reapply for the job of "assistant volunteer fire chief."

"Nothing has came by the council and there is no documentation that he is assistant volunteer fire chief," Fischer said. "He hasn't submitted an application for becoming the assistant fire chief."

"I demoted myself," Pricher said. "In terms of applying, they have my application when I applied there initially. I don't have to apply; I am just taking a step backwards. I don't want to do the administrative duties anymore; they just need someone else to do that." Pricher said he is an accepted member of the Cascade Locks volunteer fire association.

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