Woodland Fire Chief position is now official
Interim period over, Chief Tony Brentin takes command.
Photo by Noel Johnson - Click to enlarge.
Lewis River Review - Woodland, WA
Fire Chief Tony Brentin started firefighting in 1978 at the age of 17, volunteering as a firefighter. At age 19, he moved into a position as a full-time, paid firefighter and has now seen 25 years' service to communities in the Pacific Northwest.
Brentin served at the state fire academy in North Bend near Seattle before family ties and the beautiful location drew he and wife Sheri to Woodland. He secured a position at Battleground's Clark County Fire District #11 as a cadet instructor and also served as a volunteer (training crewmembers) on Woodland's team. When the opportunity to apply for the then newly-available position of Fire Chief came around, he eagerly applied. Brentin won the position over three others and was officially sworn in at Woodland's City Council meeting September 20, 2004.
"Every day varies," Brentin said, referring to a Fire Chief's typical week and chuckling. "About the time I think I have a plan set up, something else pops up." But the small-town atmosphere suits his style, providing a hands-on setting not found in facilities in larger cities. "One of the blessings of being the Fire Chief in a department like ours, where we provide our main service with volunteers, is that I'm also active in emergency operations. If I were the Fire Chief of a city such as Vancouver, about the only time I'd ever go on an emergency (call) would be to something major—catastrophic. Here, if our other full-time person was off sick, it's very likely I could be running on an apparatus. And since we have not selected a new training officer yet, that's also still part of my duties." So Brentin's position requires being versatile as well as hands on.
Some of the obstacles Brentin feels are part of the picture is providing service to an expanding city with a predominantly volunteer fire department. The most difficult staffing time, Brentin finds, is during regular business hours because volunteers are not as readily available during that time. There are some members in town locally that can leave for something major such as an actual fire but, as Brentin says "for the routine types of emergencies—and I know "routine" and "emergency" don't usually go hand-in-hand—they're just not able to do that." The department also relies on neighboring fire departments to assist and Woodland, in turn, it does the same thing for them.
Area departments typically work to help each other in problem situations. Woodland is bordered by Cowlitz Fire District #1, Clark County Fire District #1, and Kalama, in Cowlitz Fire District #5. And for major emergencies cooperative help can range even further north. Woodland has been known to respond as far away as Longview because Woodland's fire department has one of only two aerial apparatus—more commonly known as a ladder truck—in service in Cowlitz County.
Though growth brings its challenges, it also brings a plus side, providing opportunities for additional funding to upgrade capabilities. Brentin and his staff are working on obtaining funding to replace an aging engine along with other necessary equipment. Funding makes additional training for the department's members available, too. Brentin speaks highly of his crew: "A real plus is that we have a very dedicated group of department members and they're very community-minded. We have a lot of community-minded people that live here in Woodland and we're looking forward to being able to get more of them to become members of the department." Guests attending the department's open house during the Harvest Festival might have been surprised to find out that the group manning the station on Saturday, other than Chief Brentin, consisted entirely of volunteers.
"In a lot of cases," Brentin relates, "we have people in the community that don't realize that almost every single person that responds to their house is a volunteer." Volunteers wear the same kind of uniforms, and they're trained, and justifiably pride themselves on going out and representing firefighters as a very professional organization. Part of the future growth of the fire department is to eventually have more full-time firefighters because of the demand for service and because there's just not the personnel resource to meet, on a volunteer basis, the continued demand. It's a fact that volunteers, while they selflessly give their time, have only so much time to give. "They can't get up every night and go on emergencies and expect to get up the next day and go to work and do that on an every day basis." said Brentin. "At some point, you burn them out." And even the comparison of a person working two normal jobs doesn't take in the scope of the effort behind firefighting. Fire work is unpredictable, unlike working a shift at a restaurant and then also working another at a grocery—jobs that are on set schedules with known tasks at predictable times. "Emergencies aren't scheduled. Emergencies just happen." said Brentin. And inevitably they happen at an unfortunate time such as 2 o'clock in the morning. Volunteers who respond to emergency events like flooding have the added distraction of thoughts of their own home or family being in danger, too, so, in Brentin's words "it takes some really special people to do what they're doing."
To help their stamina crewmembers are rotated so they're on call only every third night. Brentin also seeks ways to keep the crew motivated, keep them equipped, and not burn them out. One of the things he's looking forward to is that, as the community grows, the fire department will grow and the growth of the community will provide more resources enabling the city to hire more full-time firefighters. "Woodland will not be a full-paid fire department even during my career." related Brentin. "We will always have volunteers, they will always be a key and integral part of our department even twenty years from now."
Imagining the future, Brentin feels that at some point, Woodland will have an on-duty staff which will make the initial response—two or three responders in the station 24 hours a day—and then volunteers will come in and handle other calls that happen or augment the responders by picking up additional apparatus and coming to their assistance. Brentin cautions that "if we were fortunate enough to have three (responders) that were on duty, they aren't going to even begin to be able to handle a house fire." On-duty staff basically provides the initial response to a call, find out what's going on, and work to set up a plan. The volunteers then come in and work with the on-duty staff to do the bulk of everything that needs to be done when responding to a call.
And despite how it may seem when the emotion of a fire or flood has victims in its grip, taking the first several minutes to get everything in place, set up a plan, and get equipment in position before actually committing crew to the fight enables a team to be very successful on a much safer basis. But that's not the perception most people have. What seems more effective to the average person is a "water show." To them, water means that you're at least doing something even though there's so much more to effectively getting a fire extinguished than just water. Brentin says, in fact, that "in some cases the best action is just to sit back and isolate." A good example is some of the situations found in the light industrial portion of a city (Woodland included). Plants where chemicals are involved, along with other hazards, make a strong case for crews identifying what they're dealing with before taking action.
Along with his duties as Fire Chief, Mr. Brentin is also the town's Fire Marshall. He works with the building department to review businesses and residences that are coming into the city. This review is an integral part of how the Fire Chief is able to keep abreast of possible problems. Says Brentin, "Part of growth and part of what we're mandated to do by municipal code is to make sure that everybody stays code-compliant. That's one of the things that also comes with the future—manpower and funding to enable us to do inspections and stay on top of those things."
While the department does not actively seek out volunteers, many are attracted to positions by word-of-mouth or genuine interest. Applications come in on an irregular basis and are maintained on file (those interested can pick one up at the fire station at city hall, in downtown Woodland). About four times a year an evaluation process is done with a person who wants to be a firefighter. Certain requirements must be met—not anybody can come in and do it. Initially, a basic background check is done because as Brentin pointed out, "When people call 9-1-1 and the fire department shows up the last thing they want to worry about is hiding the silverware and doing all those other kinds of things. They put a huge amount of faith and trust in us and we endeavor to live up to that, so, a background check is part of the process." In addition, applicants have to go through other basic steps, such as a written test, an evaluation to make sure that they're physically capable of the job of a firefighter, a medical exam, and an oral interview. On the basis of these tests the department is able to determine whether an applicant meets the standards necessary to be a member of the organization. If they pass the testing process, they're brought on board and training starts.
Brentin praised the team, saying, "We're fortunate to have such a good crew of volunteers to meet the needs of the city currently. The city's got a lot of changes happening now and changes will continue to happen. The fire department's going to continue to grow with that. (As a city) I think we're done with the slow (growth) and now we're moving on to the more rapid."
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