PROFILE: Chief Scott Koehler of East County Fire & Rescue

November 10, 2011

by Martha Martin

Chief Scott Koehler --photo Martha Martin

Chief Scott Koehler started out with dreams of becoming a police officer.  “I wanted to be a cop; they had much better TV shows in those days” quips Koehler, age 52.

Born in Minnesota, Koehler and his parents came west when he was a child.  His parents were seeking employment during a time when “the Midwest was not thriving”.

His parents set their course for California, but car trouble brought them to a halt in Spokane where an uncle was living.  Here the family stayed until Koehler’s father, after doing business in Hillsboro, Oregon, liked it so much he decided to relocate his family.  Here is where  Chief Koehler grew up, graduating from Hillsboro high school.

At age 14, Koehler entered a local fire department’s cadet program.  “That’s how I got started in this business.”   Even though he thought “being a police officer would be a hoot”, Koehler found that when he was given the opportunity to see what was being offered by the fire department, he was sold.  The fire department fit his desire to be  a “jack of all trades”.

Koehler describes this time as the “heyday of fire department growth”, with the advent of emergency medical services, hazardous materials response, and special rescue.  Koehler counts himself lucky that he was able to see these changes in the fire department, describing the process as going from just fire services to a more comprehensive “dance card” of service, which followed the growing expectations from customers.

“People expect to see that fire truck there and those folks to do everything they see on TV” says Koehler.  The example he gives is when people relocate from Portland to rural east Clark County, expecting services to be the same both places.

During this time, the field of fire fighting grew, providing lots of challenges that Koehler found interesting.  Formal education also entered the fire service at this time.

Chief Koehler started his career at the City of Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department, spending a total of 17 years there.

His first opportunity to be a Fire Chief was with the Nestucca Rural Fire District, which covers 100 square miles between Tillamook and Lincoln City.  At the time, it was an all Volunteer agency except for the Fire Chief and one Administrative Assistant.  Koehler spent about 3 years with them.

Koehler also worked with the Camano Island Fire & Rescue and Stanwood Fire Department for about nine years, eventually moving to Washougal to be closer to his aging parents.  He and his wife have lived in Washougal nine years.

An Emergency Call to Remember

Chief Koehler described one of his most memorable emergency calls.

He was called to an auto accident in Hillsboro.  According to Koehler, when he arrived at the scene, he found the single vehicle into a small rock wall.  “The driver was in cardiac arrest.  We coded the driver–I was the paramedic on the Rescue–for several minutes (CPR, IVs, cardiac medications, etc.) before we got his pulse back.  As we were loading the patient into the back of the ambulance, a bystander asked ‘How Is He doing ?’.  The driver of the fire engine gave a ‘thumbs up’ and a crowd of about 200 people began to applaud and cheer.  The accident had occurred in front of the Catholic School on a Saturday when there were activities ongoing there.  The whole block was full of people who had come out of the building–across the street and behind me–while we ‘worked’ the Code.  It made quite an impression on me–that so many people could show concern for a total stranger.  It was humbling to hear their feedback.”

Chief of East County Fire & Rescue

East County Fire & Rescue with Chief Scott Koehler, Jeff Walton, Jeff Johnson, Zach Vetter, Captain Mike Carnes, Matt Hazlett, Michael Fischer, Jason Hamilton, Jeff Farrell, Ben Porter, Danny Burch and Captain Dale Dawson.

When asked to describe his hiring process for Chief of East County Fire and Rescue, Koehler said it was a competitive and rigorous process.  Conducted by a consulting firm, his hiring included completing several writing assignments, teaching a class, handling an “angry customer”, taking oral boards, providing a presentation of his resume’, and developing the First Year Workplan.

Chief Koehler’s job responsibilities are numerous.  He described his days as varying from being “pretty low key” to having days where he never sees his desk.  “There are more meetings than I care to attend”, and he says he has come to appreciate a well run meeting.  Koehler emphasized that he gets to be the leader of a team of “really great people”.

“I’m not sure that people understand the business of the fire service” said Koehler.  “We are the most de-centralized form of government in America.  People want one-stop shopping at the city hall or the county, but this does not work for 60 or 100 or 200 square miles of fire district.”  In order to maintain reasonable response times, they are de-centralized by having several stations.

The taxes on housing, which is ECFR’s main funding source, “never ever pays the full cost of fire service”.  Those areas that have more commercial properties, such as areas within cities, usually have a larger collectible tax base.

In the rural area, where there is a need for more fire stations because of square miles and need for certain response times, staffing them all is not affordable.  Key locations are staffed, which are, according to Koehler, “your people costs”.  The apparatus must be maintained, which adds additional costs.  The four ECFR stations not staffed still have the same compliment of apparatus, adds Koehler, and they still have the same facility and repair needs.

There are state and federal mandates that “we have no control over”, most that come with no funding.  Time is spent trying to meet these mandates.

ECFR trains people to be fire fighters, with volunteers being trained based on their available time.   With new volunteers arriving, and the start of the Cadet program once again, a full day of training is done every Saturday.

ECFR fire fighters also are active in outreach to the rural community.  One example is the Square Mile Project, with weekend door-to-door visits to district citizens.  Information about ECFR, fire safety, smoke alarms, and other information is given out.

Koehler says he is the “team leader over the folks trying to make things happen”.  He describes goals and objectives which are then broken down, and people are given assignments. There can be several maintenance “crisis” each day, like plumbing, or repair to a mail box that may “get run over’.  Additionally, Koehler visits both stations 9-1 and 9-4 each day in the morning, tries to return calls, and processes about 400 emails per day.

Chief Koehler’s major responsibilities include overseeing ECFR’s budget, being responsible for personnel, and providing long term planning. He interacts with other agencies of all kinds, is currently President of the county Fire Chief’s association, and is also the Plans Chief for the regional Type III State Level Incident Management Team, as well as the Type II Team.  These teams are deployed to hazards, such as the Monastery Fire in Goldendale, with the busiest times usually during the summer.

He adds that “my job is to deal with the public, our elected officials, and other agencies so that there is a flow of information.  None of that is supposed to get in the way of the day to day operations of what the troops are doing….that’s what I do.”

It can be a lot, with Koehler stating that he went 3 ½ weeks one time without sitting at his desk.  He takes some work home.  He says “it’s the best job in the world, whether I was a cadet, or a volunteer, or when I was hired as a fire fighter, I was a paramedic, a lieutenant, and then became chief.  I don’t know if I’ve had a really bad day at work.  Even days that you wonder ‘how’s this day gonna end’, its always better than most of the customers we see.  None of us have any complaints.”

Monastery Fire in Goldendale

Monastery Fire near Goldendale, Washington

East County Fire & Rescue took part in the fire in the Monastery fire near Goldendale  this summer. That fire started on a Tuesday afternoon, and the local forces, which included every fire district in Klikitat County plus the Department of Natural Resources forces, all converged on the fire which was “out of control” according to Koehler, with dry fuel and high wind.

The fire went from three little tiny starts as a result of a muffler that blew up on a truck coming down the hill.  When the muffler blew, it shot metal out into the grass and set three separate fires.  The truck driver tried to put the fires out, but his extinguisher only took care of one, and the others grew in a matter of hours to over one thousand acres. Many houses and out buildings were  threatened, which triggered the activation of state mobilization.

Chief Koehler was activated as part of the Type II State Level Incident Management team. According to Koehler, the expectation is that 35 to 50 administrative people will deploy immediately, which is different than Type III, where 8-15 would be deployed.  Chief Koehler’s responsibility was as an administrative person operating the Plans Section.  Koehler’s jobs included coordinating the planning meetings, documenting the plan, and issuing an “incident action plan” or daily work plan, printing about 350 copies of these per day. According to Koehler, “It was a big event”. He was there a total of seven days.

Koehler was responsible for the Situation Unit, which monitors the situation and gathers information.  The helicopters fly in to get an “overview of the entire scene”, with the intention to see both inside and outside the entire the area  for planning.  He used GPS to track houses in the area, and documented the “footprint”, made maps, and provided a daily report submitted to the Federal Government.  In this report, needs are justified.  With documentation of the impact and potential,  what followed was regional agreement with the projections.  People arrived from Idaho, Montana and elsewhere very quickly.  “I typed the story that got us the toys.  Send help, send big help”.  According to Koehler, this fire started as a small fire that grew to the number one priority in the northwest.

Chief Koehler described the day he reported to the fire location.   He started at 6am when the fire was at 1000 acres.  The day was hot and dry, with temperature over 100 degress, and humidity in the teens or lower.  The fire grew to  greater than 3600 acres, and “the fire was making its own weather”, and the crews were having difficulty getting it stopped.  Koehler reported that it took a thousand people to get the fire under control.

A team of 50 managed a group of 1000, and this let the locals go back home and rest, and protect their fire district from the “normal day to day stuff”.  The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) transferred authority to the team and DNR started working for them.  The total cost was close to $5 million in fire suppression costs, with apparatus, food for 1000 people, helicopters, water drops, retardant, etc.  Once control was achieved, the fire “ramped out very quickly”, and people were headed home at 3-4 hundred people per day the last few days.  A fire patrol was set up, and the incident was turned back to the “locals”.

Koehler says there were a lot of people that played a big part, with the firefighters working the hardest and the most dangerous positions.  He noted that they were “out there in 100 degree weather protecting houses”.  They had a 20 person hand crew that “wound up on a dead-end” and became surrounded by fire, and the helicopter dropped water to create an escape route “to pull them out”.

The original report was that 10 houses were lost, but Koehler reported that 113 buildings were lost, about 40 were “some kind of structure”, and of the 10 or 12 families that live in the area of the fire, most escaped with their houses.  The fire reached 113 structures, of which they were able to save 105.  They were able to stop the fire before it reached other housing.  There was a major evacuation and the Red Cross had a shelter at the Fair Grounds, which was also the location for operations.

The evacuees made an impression on Koehler.  He was  housed at the Fair Grounds with the evacuees, calling this a “humbling experience”, as people came through and asked questions.  He said it was tough to be able to answer questions completely “when asked every 10 minutes”.  Finally a daily update was offered, and Koehler says folks were patient and “understood that”. Of the 80 to 100 who were evacuated, Koehler stated “these were all nice people, not a bad word to say, and were very patient and understanding.”

Strengths of ECFR

ECFR Department Staff

Chief Koehler sees ECFR having a good reputation as a training agency.  People come to ECFR because they “get to touch humans, they get to fight fire, drive trucks and pump.  They get used in meaningful ways”.

Koehler says that as long as ECFR has a good reputation and is able to draw “good people”, they can stay in business.  He emphasized that there is not enough funding to have a “full paid compliment”.  He says it takes several people to train and coordinate 50 volunteers, but it is still more cost effective to have a Training officer and an Operations Chief, as well as clerical support, than it would be to hire 4-5 full time people.

When asked about  the strengths of ECFR, Koehler emphatically says it’s the people.  ” “We are pushing 60 (people) right now, with the volunteers coming on” who have completed about half of the academy.  He says that they are “stellar”, upbeat, hard charging, wanting to participate in what emergency service is actually like, rather then just practice.  “It’s really not real until you cut a car us; really not real until you touch someone who is sick”.

The current volunteers are men and women from 20’s to 30’s.  Koehler says that they are glad to have people no matter what their age or motivation; there are things for people to do to help people.  However, those who are crawling inside a burning building, or dragging a person using a hoist systems make this “kind of a young person’s game”.  He is pleased to have young men and women who give so much.

Concerns for the Future of ECFR

Chief Koehler has concerns for the future of ECFR, specifically regarding people and money.  Eighty percent of the department is volunteer.  They have enough paid people to provide “continuity, and provide leadership and training”, as well as part-timers to fill day time gaps while volunteers are at work.  He says ECFR has been lucky the last few years, with volunteer recruitment up, and having obtained a $300,000 federal grant that helps “popularize our volunteering.”  Recently, ECFR accepted 10-12  volunteers, with close to 40 applying.

The state legislature has said that cities are the preferred provider of urban services.  This worries Chief Koehler.  He sees the laws being slanted to benefit the cities under the Growth Management Act.  Koehler say that “things happen to make it easier for cities to grow, and to have special service districts provide services to segments of populations.  Cities are supposed to be full service.  When a city annexes part of a fire district, very seldom do you see them put a fire station to protect that area.”

Koehler say that the expectation is for rural fire district to continue providing services because they are closer to that districts population.  But when the city takes responsibility for the property, they take all the revenue.  So, under the “let’s be neighbors” program, the city takes a districts property, takes the revenue, and if they annex a big enough piece, state law says that the fire district has to give the city something of value to offset this new “burden” that they have taken on.

There will be an exchange of cash or apparatus, or the city can take over a fire station.  The fire service district is the only special service district in the state that is required to give something to the city in big annexations; water districts do not, nor do cemetery districts  or sewer districts.  Fire Districts are the only ones.  When Camas annexed “all of the hill up there”, according to Koehler,  district 9 gave up two fire stations which was the exchange for taking on that area.

Koehler added that cities, long term, can “eat away” at fire districts, which reduces revenue, increase the call volume and expenses, and potentially takes away from the capital availability.  While this is happening, there are cities that see fire protection being too expensive.  They then support a fire authority or fire district.  He sees this as a double edge sword.  ECFR is a small agency that must get along on a small budget.  If ECFR is annexed “too hard”, he says it will be hard for ECFR to stay in business.

Koehler reports that call volume is up 38% this year, with most of that being calls within the cities.  So cities can take revenue, and it costs ECFR more dollars when they answer calls within city limits.

Current Election Offers Challenges for the Future of ECFR

Editor’s note:  At the time of this interview, the elections were still in process.   As of yesterday, November 8th, all three sitting commissioners have been re-elected.  This explanation by Chief Koehler offers some insight into the reasons for the concerns with the three challengers.

In asking Chief Koehler about the dynamics of the current election, he stated he would offer just factual information.

He stated that the three candidates challenging the current commissioners ” are not saying a lot publicly.”   He goes on to say that “the 3 quickest way to spread information around is “telephone, telegraph and tell a fire fighter”.

According to Koehler, there have been many people from the Camas Union who have talked about “the plan, and talked about goals” and “have said to our folks is that they want a board of commissioners who are more open to consolidation”.

He says that they (Camas Union people) have communicated that their plan is to develop a fire authority.  Theoretically this would be a vehicle that makes it easier to incorporate fire agencies and districts of varying kinds, such as ECFR, Cams, and Washougal.   He agrees that a fire authority could make that happen, but he is concerned that the challengers do not understand the law.

According to Koehler, the residents of the ECFR district would need to have a vote and approve the formation of a fire authority.  If this should happen, the tax rates would stay the same, the service area would stay the same.  It just opens up the possibility of “being pals with the neighbors”.  He sees no advantage to this.

The next step would be to go to the cities and ask them to join.  However, Camas has been struggling with expensive costs.  Two Camas fire stations cost almost $5 million dollars per year. The tax rate for Camas could be “pushing $1.00”, but ECFR tax rate is $1.50.  This means that the  tax rate either drops to the Camas level, or Camas would give up taxing authority that they now have to “keep things even”.  “Why would they go to $1.50 when they are already struggling?” asks Koehler.   At some point, the Camas voters will also have to vote, and approve the increase in tax rate for services.  But before that, the city of Camas would have to agree to this amount, which he doubts would happen.

The city of Washougal, according to Koehler, is more expensive than $1.50, so they would be asking county taxpayers to subsidize the city costs.

Koehler say he sees too many existing inequities both financially and  legally.  These would have to be “talked about and settled” by elected officials. .  His major concern is the appearance of outside interests that want to control the destiny of the city of Camas Fire Department, and using ECFR as the vehicle to get that done.  He also is concerned about the apparent lack of understanding of all of the issues that will need to be discussed.  These will take weeks, months, or years, as elected officials, who may think there are advantages, work through the process.

Koehler emphasized that the challengers in this election have not said anything publicly, but they have said “way too much privately”.  And Koehler is unsure that what they are saying is achievable.

Ultimately, Koehler says,  the tax payer deserves to vote and have a reasonable tax rate.

Chief Koehler sums up his feelings about his job and the ECFR team by saying “We are lucky to be able to serve, and I think everyone is honored that they are able to help”.

For more information about East County Fire and Rescue, visit their website at: http://www.eastcofire-rescue.org/ or Contact Chief Koehler at 360-834-4908.