Members of the crew at Marion County Fire District Station six assemble outside the station. Crew members say it’s time to get back to “the brotherhood.”. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

For Marion County Fire District No. 1’s Eric Banick, the current politicking between MCFD1 and Keizer Fire District over the potential annexation of the Clear Lake neighborhood is a bit like being caught in a divorce between two warring parents.

“I grew up in the Keizer Fire Hall, my dad was a volunteer there before and after I was born and he would take me down to hang out with the guys there,” Banick said. “But I’ve been a resident volunteer with MCFD1’s Station No. 6 (in north Keizer) for the past 4.5 years.

“Marion County got me to where I am, but Keizer raised me as a kid. I want people to understand it’s not about who does what, everybody just wants to serve. It’s not who we are, it’s what we are.”

Amid the verbal exchanges between chiefs Jeff Cowan, of KFD, and J. Kevin Henson, of MCFD1, it’s easy to overlook the men at Station 6 the two are battling over.

In fact, MCFD1’s coverage area once extended down to Lockhaven Drive and Whiteaker Middle School. The two fire services are now engaged in what might become a long legal battle over the Clear Lake area as both see it as a way to cut losses from the shrinking reimbursements they receive for ambulance services.

MCFD1 owns Station 6 and has served the community since long before Keizer was a city, but both departments respond to calls in the Clear Lake area as part of an automatic aid agreement. Despite the station’s relatively small size, there’s plenty of history in the station and the men who work there.

“Most of our volunteers grew up or live in the Clear Lake area and we’re just as much community-based as Keizer,” said Capt. Dave Zahn, who runs the day-to-day operations at Station No. 6. Zahn, a resident of Clear Lake and a deputy with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, has served at the station for the past 20 years. Prior to him, his uncle was captain at the station for many years. “I think we have the best of both worlds because of the double coverage.”

Station no. 6 is home to 16 career and volunteer staff. Six of the volunteers, often students in Chemeketa Community College’s firefighting program, reside at the station in rooms about the size of a single college dorm. The remainder are career firefighters available 24/7 for the ambulance stationed there and volunteers who respond from home.

Some have knocked the use of students at the station as less-than-ideal, but that assessment couldn’t be further from the truth,  Zahn said.

“For the first six months, they’re learning from us, but after that it’s much more of a back-and-forth relationship. The students keep us up-to-date on all the newest best practices, technology and firefighting techniques,” he said.

To keep track of all the various career and volunteer firefighters, the station has a new electronic tracking system that allows anyone responding to calls from Station No. 6 to update their status by phoning in and Zahn to know who is ready and able to respond simply by checking his phone.

Crews from Station No. 6 respond to about 1.5 calls per day. The most they’ve had in a month is 72. Their coverage area extends from the Clear Lake neighborhood north to Waconda Road and east as far as the railroad tracks that run along Interstate 5.

“We get a huge variety of calls from accidents on I-5, to fire and medical calls to high-angle rescue calls if a car goes over the edge of the roads in one of the more rural areas and we get trained on all of it,” Banick said.

Station responders are also deeply involved in the community, said community involvement coordinator Mark Jennings, a Station No. 6 volunteer firefighter/EMT.

Every year, the crew sets up a tent in the Clear Lake neighborhood on Halloween to pass out candy and hot apple cider, they hand out candy canes with Santa from the back of their trucks, like KFD, and they also take their families to go caroling at Willamette Lutheran Homes that same evening. More recently, Station 6 donated two rides to school aboard the fire truck and a birthday party at the station to a PTA auction at Clear Lake, the trio of offerings brought in about $2,000.

“The reason I’ve spoken up is I want people to realize the connection we have with the community. I don’t see a reason to mess that up. As a resident of the community, I will gladly pay a little bit more in taxes to have the arrangement we have,” Jennings said.

While none of them think the current upheaval is having an effect on their ability to do the job or work with KFD in the field, all of them are more than a little wounded by the state of affairs.

“I wish people would realize that we need to get back to the brotherhood. It’s not about a County or Keizer patch, it’s about serving. I think everybody needs to dig a little deeper and figure out why they do this job,” Banick said. “All the guys here just want a place to hang their helmets.”