New chief in the house

Interim Fire Chief Ryan Russell sits in a KFD truck in the bay at KFD on Nov. 21. (JOSHUA MANES/Keizertimes)

In September, Ryan Russell was named the Interim Fire Chief for Keizer Fire District by the board. Russell has been with KFD for two decades, and his start in the field has a strong connection to KFD’s roots. 

Russell started his career as a firefighter as a volunteer, though not in Keizer.

“It was something that I started doing just to help out in my spare time. It didn’t take me a whole lot of time to realize that I liked what I was doing for free more than what I was doing for a career at that point,” Russell said.

He was exposed to the fire department at a young age. 

His grandfather, father and two uncles were all volunteer firefighters in Coquille, Ore., where Russell grew up and began his volunteer work. 

“It was a service that was needed, and people just did it,” Russell said. “I don’t know if it’s a civic duty, but people that want to help look for an outlet.”

And while he liked what he was doing, Russell always felt a paying job with the department in a town so small seemed out of reach.

He decided to make the transition, and moved to attend Chemeketa Community College’s fire program on the recommendation of his chief at the Coquille station. 

And a successful, and happy, transition it was for Russell. 

He was working construction, and doubts he would have been able to last as long in that field as he has as a firefighter. 

“Growing up a job was never something that I thought you liked, it was just something that you did,” Russell said.

But Russell found something he liked to do. And found his first paid opportunity as a firefighter in Keizer. 

And that’s where he’s been since 2001.

First as a firefighter and engineer, then about three years in Russell was promoted to shift captain. Six years ago he was named a Division Chief. 

KFD has three Division Chiefs. As maintenance chief, Russell is in charge of making sure the station and apparatus are all in good condition, and overseeing projects and purchases for improvements.

There is also a training chief that handles all in-house training and an operations chief that handles response and operations. 

Russell said that one of the big differences in the roles of the division chiefs at KFD compared to larger departments is that they also fill the role of Battalion Chief, the on-scene incident command. 

“We have to get as much value as we can get for what we have to work with,” Russell said. “It’s nice for me to be able to do both because it keeps me in touch with going on calls and what’s going on as well as give me exposure to more of the administrative stuff.”

And perhaps that administrative exposure got him ready for his current role as interim chief. 

While he admits that he got into firefighting for the more exciting parts, since taking the office in September, Russell said he has gained an appreciation for affecting small organizational changes, but it is mainly about being able to take care of the people for him.

“Working with them and taking care of them on-scene is definitely important and it’s rewarding, but being able to take care of the group as a whole and make sure they have what they need to do the job, I think that’s grown on me,” Russell said. 

The role of interim chief opened up following two third-party reports on KFD, a cultural and an operations audit. Following the reports, then-chief Jeff Cowan retired. 

Coming into the interim position, Russell and KFD had the reports to work with and fix the issues outlined in them.

“There’s a lot of information in those reports and there’s a lot of things that have been identified as areas for improvement,” Russell said. “A lot of that stuff we’ve made changes already to make those improvements. Some of the stuff to do was pretty easy without a lot of effort, we just had to tweak what we were doing a little.”

One of the major issues that Russell saw was the overutilization of certain apparatus, particularly Medic 35. 

Since the report, KFD added a daytime medic unit, which takes at least five calls off the hands of those on a 24-hour shift. 

“Watching what’s going on, talking to the guys out on the floor, that’s been one of the bigger differences we’ve been able to make in the last four or five years,” Russell said.

Outside of the morale boost and additional rest, the change has enabled them to take an apparatus out of service and train, something Russell said they were almost never able to do previously.

There are more changes coming to KFD. Starting in January, they’ll be moving to a 48/96 schedule, a change that the cultural audit highlighted staff members wanted. Firefighters will be scheduled for 48-hour shifts, but have four days off to recover. 

Deputy Fire Marshall Anne-Marie Storms thinks that will be a big morale booster.

“In general, just with a lot of the little tweaks that have been made, along with having a Fire Chief here who you can come in and have a conversation with, you can voice frustrations. And you walk out, and maybe you haven’t resolved anything, but at least you feel heard,” Storms said. “That is something the crews are starting to appreciate. There’s a lot more communication.”

For Russell, that communication is right there at the top of priorities, following taking care of eachother and the community.

“I’ve been in places where there’s a feeling that knowledge is power and people like to hold on to that,” Russell said. “That’s not something that is suitable for today’s fire service, or really anywhere.”

To get where they need to go, Russell feels they need to be transparent, and said it’s going to take everyone’s help. 

One of the biggest things for him in trying to improve communications is to offer as much support to the rest of the staff who are out there interacting with the community. 

“We’re showing the community that we’re still here,” Russell said. “And we’re better than we were yesterday, and tomorrow we’ll be better than we were today.”