Lewis and Clark firefighters praise retiring chief for dedicationReminders of his 30 years at the helm of the Lewis and Clark Rural Fire Protection District are everywhere Jerry Alderman looks.
"I was driving through the community the other day, and every half-mile or so I was reminded of a medical call, or a fire call, or an MVA (motor vehicle accident)," he said. "I thought 'I've been to that house, or that place' - it all came flooding back."
Deciding it was time to let "the younger generation" take over, Alderman has stepped down as chief. His replacement is Jere Strizek, a paramedic with Medix Ambulance Service, who has served with the Lewis and Clark district since 2001 as firefighter and paramedic. Strizek was appointed chief by the district's board earlier this month.
Surrounded by smoke, Alderman prepares to extinguish a galley fire at the MERTS fire training facility last April.
File PhotoAlderman said he pondered retirement for a year. While the position is purely volunteer, it's grown into almost a full-time job, and with his new duties as instructor at the Marine and Environmental Research Training School, Alderman said he felt it was the right time to step down. He'll remain with the department as a firefighter.
Leading a volunteer fire district means not only being on-call 24 hours a day every day, but also handling the training, fundraising and other responsibilities - all for no pay.
It wasn't a responsibility Alderman was looking to take on back in 1973. His father had served with the district from its founding in 1952, but he himself was busy running Landwehr's Grocery at Miles Crossing and wasn't eager to add more duties to his busy life.
Then the building across the street from his store caught fire. Alderman ran over to assist, and was disturbed to find only a handful of firefighters responding to the blaze. He was asked to lend a hand to the short-handed department.
"I was already working about 90 hours a week in the store, but I said 'OK,'" he said.
Five months after he joined, the district's chief stepped down, and Alderman was chosen to replace him. He quickly set about recruiting new volunteers to beef up the department's thin ranks, signing up most of his young employees and even hectoring his customers to join.
"They either joined or they quit and started going to other stores," he laughed.
But the efforts worked, and within two years the district had 30 personnel. In 1976, it expanded southward, doubling in size and adding a second station on Logan Road. Today about 2,500 residents, 730 homes and 85 businesses lie within the district.
One of the handful of volunteers on board when Alderman joined was Klyde Thompson, deputy chief and a 34-year veteran of the district. The new chief provided a much-needed spark that not only boosted the roster but also got the volunteers to "build new life into the department," he said.
"He inspired us to pull up the bootstraps and start building a fire department."
Stable crewWhile its membership fluctuates as volunteers come and go, Lewis and Clark hasn't experienced the drop in personnel that many volunteer fire departments across Oregon and the rest of the country are seeing, and has maintained its strength at 25 to 30 personnel. That's notable, given the tremendous commitment in training it takes to be a volunteer firefighter these days, Alderman said.
"It doesn't matter if you're a career firefighter in Portland or in podunk Lewis and Clark, it's still the same standards," he said.
Rural fire districts have come a long way since the old days, when the unofficial motto was: "Two hundred years of tradition totally unhampered by modern technology," Alderman said.
Fire crews also were unhampered by much concern about safety, he added.
"It used to be a badge of courage - you would take a rookie in, see how much smoke he could eat, and come out spitting out black snot," he said.
Now airpacks are standard equipment, and volunteers drill regularly on modern, and safer, firefighting techniques.
Duties addedIn the late 1970s, the district volunteers started training in emergency medical service (EMS) and added medical calls to their duties. Today most of the volunteers have at least an EMS first-responder certification - "we encourage it," Alderman said - and about half of those also have the more advanced emergency medical technician training.
Medical emergencies account for about 60 percent of the district's calls these days.
Several district volunteers have used their experiences as springboards for careers as professional firefighters or paramedics, he said. "That's always gratifying."
Along with maintaining a strong volunteer base, Alderman has also worked to make sure the district has money for day-to-day operations and new equipment.
"All through the years, every time we needed a levy for anything, a truck or equipment, he took it upon himself as a challenge to get the levies put out to the voters," Thompson said. "Every levy we put out passed by over 75 percent - that's unbelievable."
Most recently the district acquired new airpacks for each volunteer, a big step forward, Thompson said. Now crew members won't need to share equipment, and there is much less clean-up time required after calls.
Alderman also was behind an innovative pension program the district put in place a few years ago, Thompson said. The program sets aside money for volunteers based on a scoring system that awards points for every emergency call and drill they participate in. For volunteers who otherwise receive no pay, it's a nice reward for their service.
"Jerry put all that together," he said.
Good and badWorking in a small community where most residents know each other has its up and down sides, Alderman said.
"In a way it's easier - you walk in, and they know you. There's a level of trust that's built up," he said. "But in a way, it's hard not to be emotionally involved, to see those people hurting, or losing their property - that makes it a little harder. It's tough not to feel their pain."
Alderman's experience with Lewis and Clark allowed him to join the staff at MERTS in 1991 as a part-time instructor in its Fire Science program. With the completion of the new Fire Response and Research Center last year, he joined the faculty full-time. The new training facility simulates fires on land and on board ships, and has received excellent reviews from the students who've come through so far, he said.
Alderman served as operations chief for the Astoria Fire Department for six years before budget cuts eliminated his position in 2001. He was also county fire marshal for 10 years.
Along with better equipment, the district, and its patrons, also benefit from advances in communications. Pagers and cell phones have replaced the siren on top of the fire station and telephone tree that used to round up volunteers. That's cut down on response time and made it possible for crews to get out to fires, medical emergencies and other calls in time to save lives, Alderman said.
"We had a code save a year ago," he said, referring to a medical call. "Our people got there early, defibrillated the guy, and he recovered.
"To have made a difference in people's lives, plus to know these wonderful guys, who go out any time of night, and do whatever you ask of them," he said. "To be part of a group like that is pretty special."