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Update: Improvement At Columbia River Fire & Rescue

Update: Improvement At Columbia River Fire & Rescue

Following months of turmoil at Columbia River Fire & Rescue (CRFR), members of the administration and members of the union are feeling optimistic about the developing state of the district.

There have been a variety of issues facing the district, including a budgetary crisis, a lawsuit resulting from the termination of former fire chief Joel Medina, and arbitration between command and line staff regarding a contract.

Interim Fire Chief Eric Smythe said the current state of CRFR is “delicate, but improving.”

“The relationships between our union staff and administration has continued to make favorable strives daily during the last few months,” Smythe said. “This is not an easy task, but a structured plan of building mutual trust, respect, and developing a partnership that ensures our citizens receive the stellar emergency service they have come to expect.”

St. Helens Professional Firefighters Association President Dustin King said it is an understatement “to say that the past few years have been extremely challenging for our membership, neighboring fire districts in general, and to our professional partnerships across our county and state.” However, he noted that there has been improvement over the course of the past few months.

“Working conditions at Columbia River Fire & Rescue deteriorated to such poor levels that several of our members felt they had no other option than to seek employment elsewhere to preserve their mental health and physical well-being,” King said. “Recently, we have been encouraged to see signs of an improving, cooperative relationship with current CRFR administration and Interim Fire Chief Eric Smythe.”

Labor Negotiations

One of the significant developments for the district was an agreement between the district and IAFF Local 3215 St. Helens Professional Firefighters Association on the contested contract.

The district reached a signed memorandum of agreement (MOA) with IAFF Local 3215 St. Helens Professional Firefighters Association on the issue, which was initially contested in arbitration. The arbitrator compelled the administration and the union back to the bargaining table.

Smythe said that district staff met with the union from early December through January 2024 to negotiate and “find a path forward.” The work in the district has been a result of work from “all members of CRFR, from the Board of Directors to volunteer members,” according to Smythe. An agreed-upon MOA was signed between the CRFR Board of Directors and the Firefighters Association in late January.

“This process brought the district and Union to the table to seek a meaningful resolution for the district that met the needs of our citizens while maintaining fiscal responsibility and solvency,” Smythe said. “As one of the members of the negotiating team, I appreciate the efforts of the district staff and Union Executive Board in working closely together for the betterment of the fire district.”

King echoed Smythe’s sentiments, saying that the union and Smythe have “opened a healthy line of communication.” District and union representatives meet on a weekly and sometimes daily basis to discuss issues surrounding the district.

“We have established direct means of communication between labor and management in a more efficient manner, allowing resolution quickly to avoid it becoming a contentious issue,” Smythe said. “These meetings allow both groups to work to find common ground, speak openly, and get to the root of the matter. It is imperative that for a fire district to operate, open communication and problem-solving be at the forefront of any project, discussion, or disagreement.”

King said that the new administration has sought the union’s input on operational matters, budget, and policy. This approach allows the firefighters to have a hand in making a fire district that serves the needs of the community first, according to King.

“We have a long way to go to rebuild CRFR to what it once was, but the foundation of collaboration and goodwill has the potential to serve this agency and our community well,” King said.

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