Bend Fire and Rescue on Tuesday celebrated adding new staff members and a new engine more than a year ahead of schedule, thanks to a boost from the city. But to keep it going, the department is going to need the help of voters.
A “push-in” ceremony took place at Station 306 next to Pilot Butte — a practice dating back to the 1800s in which the community helps push the new engine into the station.
Bend Fire hired nine new firefighters — the engine requires three staff members at a time for 24/7 service.
“We hired these firefighters in the fall and they went through our academy where they trained hard for 12 weeks,” Chief Todd Riley said. “And now that they graduated, we can spread them out in the city and open this engine.”
Tuesday marked the first time fire crews have actually been able to operate out of Station 306. Since it opened, it has housed only a medic unit.
“This station was built without a staffing plan, and so when when I promoted to chief and we opened the station back in January of 2020, there were no people to put in it,” Riley said.
They planned to hold off staffing until they received funding through a levy on the ballot this next May, but the need was just too great to wait.
“In the last ten years, our call volume has gone up 60%,” Riley said. “Bend has grown roughly 30% in that same timeframe, but our staffing hasn’t gone up to keep pace with the increase in the call volume. So what we’re doing is we’re sending the same amount of people and the same amount of resources to more calls and more calls and more calls.”
Bend’s population has increased by nearly 20,000 in the past ten years.
Due to the high need, the City of Bend and the Rural Fire Protection District stepped in to provide $1.5 million in what they call a bridge fund. It’s enough to staff the new fire engine around the clock until, they hope, funding from the levy kicks in next summer.
Turner Stutzman is one of the firefighter paramedics among the nine new hires. He said he was aware when he began the firefighting academy that future funding for his job was not guaranteed.
However, he said the uncertainty doesn’t make him too nervous.
“Obviously, the thought of yeah, you could lose your job or the staffing that we have for the city is pretty scary,” he said. “But the community definitely has a lot of support that I’ve seen so far. And every call we go on, we see that support from the community. So it kind of makes a little more comforting knowing that those people are here for us and that we’re here for them.”
The levy — and jobs for Stutzman and the eight other hires — has three chances to make it past voters: Once this May, again in November and again in May 2024.
“If we’re unsuccessful in every ask of the voters, even if we reduce the rate and if we are unable to pass a levy, it is tied to jobs,” Riley said. “Our workforce is ready to engage with the community and educate, and if we tell our story and help people understand what it is that we do and why this is essential, we’re confident that we’ll get it passed.”
Riley says they haven’t decided yet how much funding they will ask for with the new levy, but they released a community survey last month to gauge public support.
The current tax rate is 20 cents per $1,000 of assessed taxable value, and the department has not asked for an increase in that rate since 2014.