Small fire department covers big area
Last updated 8/30/2022 at Noon
Black Butte Ranch Rural Fire Protection District is a combination career and volunteer department that serves approximately three square miles, an area almost double Sisters’ 1.88 square miles. The department covers the resort community, which has a year-round population of about 300 residents and a destination population that can be as high as 5,000 during the peak summer months.
In addition, District personnel provide advanced life support emergency medical services, vehicle extrication, and ambulance transport services to their ASA (Ambulance Service Area) of over 12 square miles. The District takes in about $50,000 each in ambulance reimbursement.
Black Butte Ranch Rural Fire Protection District responds to an average of 300 calls per year, with an average of 90 percent being medical-related. Due to many of the Ranch’s year-round residents and guests being older, they tend to have more cardiac-related calls per capita than the average fire district.
The location of the District along Highway 20, and its position relative to the City of Sisters, provides potential for significant emergencies, including structure fires and wildland fires, multi-vehicle accidents, and commercial transportation accidents/spills. The District is trained and prepared to assist mutual aid partners for terror/mass casualty incidents, severe flooding, and other large-scale emergencies.
Driving times from an incident within Black Butte Ranch to the nearest hospital can be more than 40 minutes in the winter months. Three work shifts are staffed by a captain/paramedic and a firefighter/paramedic. Normal minimum staffing is two career personnel.
The District’s fire and emergency medical services (EMS) training is made possible through cooperation and innovation with neighboring districts (Cloverdale Rural Fire Protection District and Sisters-Camp Sherman Rural Fire Protection District) under a mutual “interagency coordination” agreement.
Through Vector Solutions software (formerly Target Solutions), a comprehensive training schedule has been implemented and allows for continuous monitoring/scheduling of fire and EMS training daily throughout all three agencies. Cooperation with neighboring agencies provides for standard training methods to boost knowledge, efficiencies, and safety throughout the greater Sisters area.
Like all such departments, the Black Butte Rural Fire Protection District is paid by taxes levied on its 1,253 homeowners, in this case $1.47 per $1,000 assessed property values. The District also gets up to $1.76/$1,000 from a voter-approved, five-year local option levy. Of the total $2.22 million budgeted operational cost of running the department, $1.73 million is for personnel.
The District currently maintains a fleet of apparatus consisting of one Class A engine, one 75-foot ladder truck (the only one in Sisters Country), one heavy brush engine, one light brush engine, two advanced life support ambulances, two command vehicles, one duty officer vehicle, and one utility vehicle.
The Nugget met with new Deputy Chief Jason Ellison last week. He had just completed the weekly (summer) station tour where visitors get a chance to meet firefighters and check out the equipment. Guests can even put out a simulated house fire.
Ellison and his team see this as a good way for children to become familiar with the operation, learning who they are, what they do, and when it is a good time to call 9-1-1.
Becoming deputy chief is a dream come true for Ellison, whose family has been connected with the Ranch for 65 years. He can’t remember too many Thanksgivings not spent on the Ranch. Those vivid memories enabled him to give up a 20-year career in a much larger department — Clackamas County — where he rose through the ranks.
When he and his wife made the decision to accept the Black Butte position, he was a battalion chief in the 335-firefighter ranks.
“It’s just such an amazing feel to be here. This is community firefighting at its best,” he said. “You can’t begin to know everybody you serve in a big department but you can here.”
The chief and deputy chief are provided housing at the Ranch; otherwise it would be difficult if not impossible to recruit and retain top talent, residents say. They are glad to have a manager generally onsite 24/7/365 as a result.
Ellison expects to finish his career in the District. The Ellisons have three children — ages 9, 7, and 3. Two will be in school in Sisters.
Historically, Black Butte Ranch’s demographics do not support a traditional volunteer fire department system. Thus in 1986 they developed a “Resident Volunteer Program” that provides opportunities for aspiring, career-minded young adults who affiliate with Black Butte Ranch Rural Fire Protection District to volunteer their time in exchange for training, hands-on experience, and educational support in pursuit of college degrees in fire/EMS-related fields.
“Staffing is going to be a problem,” Ellison said. “Firefighting is losing its appeal, and for those choosing it as a career they will be attracted to bigger departments with bigger pay.”
He’s hoping to build an ethos for those in their late teens and early 20s who will choose community over the size of their paycheck.