Albany Democrat-Herald, Ore.
Nov. 29—Rick Smith has spent virtually his entire adult life with the Monroe Rural Fire Protection District.
He volunteered for 16 years and has spent the past 22 as the chief of the district, which has just two other paid employees.
As of January, he will be retired and separated from district life and fire service for the first time in 38 years.
“I have a lot of mixed feelings,” Smith said in a recent interview. “It’s really hard. I’ve felt a huge connection with the people of south Benton County.”
The Monroe district, like most rural fire service operations, runs almost exclusively with volunteers. Smith has 18 and “feels fortunate” that he can deploy that many.
The volunteer component makes training critically important, and Smith is proud that since 2019 he has had a lieutenant, Kyler Crocker, to take charge of that piece.
“Training and its requirements are a never-ending task,” Smith said. “It keeps morphing into different areas.”
For example, Smith noted new federal rules on managing heat exhaustion.
“It provides certain standards of employee protection, and it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “But it can be difficult when you are running a house fire with a limited staff.”
As the chief, Smith was never not on call.
“You have to be engaged 24/7/365,” Smith said. “You can be eating ice cream or asleep in bed, and then go from zero to 60 in 3 seconds flat. You have to be prepared for that, for your staff and for the general public. You have to put all of those other things behind you and be 100% spot-on.”
The expectations of the public are high, Smith said. And they should be.
“You have to be 100% right, 100% of the time and in the chaos of a fire or a medical event that can be hard to do,” he said. “I’m extremely proud of all of the people that dedicate themselves to helping others. Putting somebody else first is a lost art and a hallmark of fire service.
“Everybody has calls that affect them. You might have sleepless nights and self-questioning events. But you have to work through those and learn how to make things better in a horrible situation in which there is really no good outcome. When things get hard and you run out of the ability to change the situation, you still have to stay there and complete the task.
“The mission is the most important thing,” Smith added in one of several conversational threads in which he compared fire service to the military.
A realization of the impact of the time commitment on his family life and relationships was a big factor in his decision to retire.
“I can’t count the number of birthdays, anniversaries and movies that I have missed,” he said. “My mom and dad are getting older. All of my family members had to pay a price for me to be here, and it’s time for me to pay that back and spend time with them — let them know how much their grandpa or son cares and offer them support.”
Smith was asked about what has changed in fire service during his 38 years.
“Just about everything,” he said. “Boots, equipment, safety, support. … The only constant in life is change. In the last 10 years the rate of change in fire service has been dramatic. Structure fires are so different from 20 years ago. You used to just hose them down and run in.
“Now, you have to approach things more scientifically. Reading smoke, looking at construction techniques, five behavior and fire dynamics. We take classes to help learn from past mistakes, approach the fire in a safe and manageable manner and always have a plan.”
Equipment also has changed during Smith’s tenure. When he took the chief’s job in 1999, the district had a 1964 Western States fire truck. And that was it.
Smith talks with pride at the ability of the district to add seven pieces of new apparatus during his tenure, all without having to go to district voters for a levy or bond to pay for them. And the bright white trucks in the district’s bays just gleam, showing the care with which they are maintained.
“We spent over $1 million without having to go to the taxpayers,” he said. “We’ve been really fiscally responsible with the money brought into the district. We do without a lot of bells and whistles. But I’m proud of our stuff. We’re glad to have it.
“I remember when I was a volunteer and vehicles sometimes wouldn’t start. Now, if a truck doesn’t last 35 years then it wasn’t much good.”
Smith should know, after 38 years of service in Monroe, how to make things last.
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