Tribal Government & News

Tribe preparing to take over fire services in Grand Ronde area

05.14.2020 Dean Rhodes Public safety
The Grand Ronde Fire Station will soon become operated by the Grand Ronde Tribe instead of the West Valley Fire District. The station has been open for 10 years. (Photo by Timothy J. Gonzalez/Smoke Signals)

By Dean Rhodes

Smoke Signals editor

The Grand Ronde Tribe runs its own police department and will soon add its own fire department to its list of sovereign nation-provided public safety services.

According to a Dec. 12 approved authorization to proceed signed by seven Tribal Council members, General Manager David Fullerton was asked to renegotiate a memorandum of understanding with the West Valley Fire District to include a “comprehensive transition plan” for the Grand Ronde Tribe to assume operations of the fire station on Grand Ronde Road.

In addition, Fullerton was directed to file the appropriate documents to register the fire station as being owned and operated by the Tribe, which might provide an “increase in external funding opportunities.”

Fullerton also was directed to oversee the transition plan and re-organize the Emergency Management Program now located at the Grand Ronde Tribal Police Department to assume fire station operations.

The authorization to proceed also established a $50,000 operating budget for the 2020 budget year for fire station management.

The Tribe and West Valley Fire District signed an intergovernmental agreement in July 2009 to build and operate the fire station in Grand Ronde. The fire station subsequently opened in June 2010, cutting response time for fire and medical emergencies in the Grand Ronde area substantially.

Throughout the last decade, the Tribe has budgeted hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to fund operations at the fire station.

The West Valley Fire District located in Willamina recently joined two other fire departments – Sheridan and Southwest Polk – to form one district for fire and emergency medical services. The intergovernmental agreement took effect on July 1, 2019.

The new district covers 535 square miles and includes eight fire stations, including the one in Grand Ronde. The district has 23 paid staff members and approximately 50 volunteers.

According to the Yamhill County News Register, the combined budget for the three districts is about $4 million.

In a Voters’ Pamphlet statement supporting the West Valley Fire District levy on the May 19 ballot, West Valley Fire Chief Fred Hertel said the Tribe taking over operation of its own fire department will present challenges.

“Financially, this contract provided funding for the three firefighters/emergency medical technicians and the three firefighter/paramedics that staffed the CTGR fire station in Grand Ronde,” Hertel wrote. “The medical incidents handled by this staff also generated revenue for the West Valley Fire District.

“As this great partnership evolves, the funding from the contract and the calls will change with it. Operationally, the contract provides facilities and apparatus in the Grand Ronde area. The facilities and some apparatus are owned by CTGR. West Valley Fire District will need to adapt its response coverage in order to provide service through and after this transition.”

West Valley Fire District Board member Chris Greenhill was quoted in the Yamhill County News-Register as being in support of the Tribe operating its own fire department even though it will financially affect the district.

In preparation for taking over Grand Ronde firefighting responsibilities, Tribal Council approved applying for an almost $1 million firefighting grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during its March 4 meeting.

If received, the federal grant would fund a new fire engine, 20 portable radios and other fire engine equipment, 20 self-contained breathing units and 40 sets of protective clothing for firefighters who would be stationed in Grand Ronde.

During its May 13 meeting, Tribal Council also approved applying for two grants that would help fund a Tribally-operated fire station. The first would purchase vehicle extraction equipment, including a spreader and cutter because average daily traffic in the area exceeds 22,000 vehicles along highways 18 and 22. The second, to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, would help pay for three staff members at the fire station.

Planning and Grants Manager Kim Rogers said the two grants, if received, would help the Tribe develop its own firefighting assets and staff its own fire service.

Tribal Council Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy said during an April 21 interview about her record-setting years of service that the Tribe operating its own fire department is a continuation of its pursuit of sovereignty.

“I have always been on the sovereignty piece,” Kennedy said. “I’m very dedicated to making sure we stand as a sovereign nation. … Some of the latest things, of course, is our ability to manage our own fire department.”

Developing Tribal public safety was a goal adopted in both the 2010 and 2018 Grand Ronde strategic plans.