Jackson County's two largest fire agencies may consolidate some services and administrative jobs, possibly including the fire chief position.
Representatives of Medford Fire-Rescue and Jackson County Fire District No. 3 will meet Wednesday to discuss how to better pool resources and personnel to drive down operations costs and improve service. There is no talk of fully merging the two departments, Medford's acting chief said.
Ideas that are on the table, officials said, include consolidating some management positions, combining purchasing systems, and streamlining responses in cases such as large structure fires in which more firefighters and engines are needed.
"It's been a discussion item for the past couple of months," said Gordon Sletmoe, acting fire chief for Medford Fire-Rescue. "Having said that, no real talks have occurred at this point."
Agency heads say the idea for the agencies to meet came from Jackson County Commissioner Doug Breidenthal. Breidenthal, former assistant operations chief at the fire department for the Kingsley Field air base in Klamath County, said he brought it up as a cost-savings measure.
"I saw opportunity for the city of Medford and Jackson County Fire District 3 to be able to save some money and build increased services for less cost," Breidenthal said. "I basically asked the question: 'What do you guys think?' "
City and county officials agreed it was at least worth looking into.
"From the city's perspective, why not? Why wouldn't we want to have this conversation?" said Medford City Manager Eric Swanson.
Dan Petersen, Fire District No. 3 chief and a former deputy chief in Medford, said there are numerous similarities between the districts. From his view, streamlining makes sense.
"We both have similar overhead, and similar staffing and similar requirements," Petersen said.
Fire District No. 3 is based in White City, which has a significant residential and industrial presence, and the district also covers a large area that includes Central Point, Eagle Point, Gold Hill and their surrounding rural areas.
There are three administrative vacancies between the two districts, Petersen said, which could create opportunities for consolidation. Fire District No. 3 has a deputy operations chief open, while Medford's training chief and fire chief slots are open. Previous Medford Fire-Rescue Chief Dave Bierwiler retired in March. Medford officials said they have not been actively seeking a replacement.
Petersen said a key discussion topic would be whether to keep those positions unfilled and use current administrators to handle the tasks for both agencies.
"That would probably be the biggest discussion that we're going to have. Can we have one management team?" Petersen said, adding that even if they operated under one chief, the separate agencies would be maintained.
Fire officials said a cooperative agreement would better manage available resources so the closest fire agency could respond to an emergency and bypass jurisdictional boundaries.
"Sometimes you'll have a situation where they have to respond to a place, and the nearest fire station isn't in the jurisdiction requiring that," Swanson said. "We're trying to come up with a shared model where we can more easily deploy those vehicles."
Valley fire agencies already share resources to an extent, especially during larger structure fires such as the recent blaze that ripped through the former Associated Fruit storage facility near Talent. Crews from four area agencies responded.
"That's one of the questions that will be asked: If we can do it efficiently the way we're doing it right now, is there a need to do it even further?" Sletmoe said.
Petersen and Sletmoe said there would be no staff layoffs as a result of such an agreement, because that could lead to slower response times for emergencies.
"Layoffs fall right into the category of a degradation of service, so those aren't even being discussed," Sletmoe said.
A ballpark value on savings generated from such an agreement has not yet been defined.
Fire officials said the talks are not about a merger of the two departments.
"A lot of people, when they hear we're going to having these talks, they kind of fast-forward to a merger or a consolidation," Sletmoe said. "We're not even headed down that path."
"It's hard to say what the future will hold, but at this point there's no talk at all of creating one consolidated agency," he added.
Department union officials could not be reached for comment Monday.
Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.