After seven months of uncertainty — perhaps more for the district from an internal standpoint — the Keizer Fire District has its permanent chief.
He had served as interim chief since September, and, with a crowd of more than 50 firefighters, families and city officials gathered in the firehouse bay on Friday, Ryan Russell was officially made the new KFD Fire Chief.
“It’s a relief now that it’s permanent,” Russell said. “It’s been a lot of uncertainty along the way, and to get to this point where it’s permanent, it feels like a good step for us to start moving forward from here and continuing to improve our service.”
Russell came into the interim role at a rocky point for KFD. A pair of internal audits had revealed glaring issues with the culture and operations within the district, and then-chief Jeff Cowan retired.
KFD was left with a void in leadership and a list of issues to correct, and Russell stepped in to fix those problems.
Among those problems that seemed to negatively impact morale was the scheduling. Staff wanted to implement a 48/96 schedule, with staff scheduled for a 48-hour shift, and then 96-hours off. It’s a shift from the 24/48 schedule that didn’t offer staff enough consecutive downtime after catching up on rest.
That change and other operational shifts appear to have had a positive effect on the district.
“It makes them more effective on the street when they’re out taking care of the community because they’re happy in the fire station, they’re happy out on the street,” Russell said.
We’re just going to keep working towards that and making sure that we’re putting the best product out that we can. It’s been really rewarding seeing people openly and obviously enjoying their job.”
According to KFD Board of Directors member Joe Van Meter, Russell has already implemented the suggestions made from the audits, including forming an intergovernmental agreement with Marion County Fire District.
One of the audit recommendations was to bring in a human resources professional, something that wasn’t in the budget for KFD. But as part of the agreement, the two agencies will trade an IT specialist and HR professional for up to 30 hours per week.
And that interagency relation spreads beyond Marion County.
Three weeks ago, KFD hosted live-fire training exercises at a house on Rivercrest Drive. Those exercises included Marion County, Salem, Woodburn and Polk County fire crews.
“That’s his relationship with the fire community,” Van Meter said. “I think it’s going to serve our citizens well and it’s certainly going to serve the fire district well.”
Russell has served with the Keizer Fire District since 2001, moving from firefighter and engineer to shift captain to maintenance division chief where he served for six years before the move to interim chief last September.
A strong internal candidate for the job was a big plus, as Van Meter said they had been looking for a candidate from within the district.
“We had wide community participation in Chief Russell’s selection,” Van Meter said. “We had an internal panel as well as a community panel. He was a strong candidate throughout, and I believe we’ve made the right choice.”
It isn’t just KFD, or even the neighboring agencies that look forward to Russell’s time as Chief.
Keizer Mayor Cathy Clark was in attendance for Russell’s swearing in, and has seen a difference in his time as interim chief, both internally and externally.
“There’s an enthusiasm, there’s an energy that is here,” Clark said. “The collaboration with the city has returned, so we’ve been able to work on lease communications, talk about our emergency planning because we need to update our plan and just hearing about the collaboration between the two fire districts. I’ve talked to friends of ours who have returned to be volunteers and they’re very excited to be a part of where Chief Russell is going to lead this organization.”
Even with all the work that has been put in in the interim position, now that he is filling the permanent role, Russell knows there is still a lot to do.
“There’s always projects to be done, but I think now that the uncertainty of an interim position is gone, we can start moving forward on some of the plans that we’re working on,” Russell said.