Vale Fire seeks citizens’ guidance as needs, future costs loom

Turnouts hang at the ready in the Vale Fire Hall in April 2022. Vale Fire Chief Jess Tolman is seeking citizen input on funding improvements and equipment as needs grow. (The Enterprise/LES ZAITZ)

The Vale Fire Department is surveying city residents ahead of proposing a plan to modernize the service that’s been in place for nearly 125 years.

Fire Chief Jess Tolman, outlining the needs, said the most significant is to replace the department’s 1985 ladder truck, which he describes as vital equipment to protect Vale.

He wants to add a new exhaust system at the department’s station on Hope Street to better protect firefighters.

He’d also like to add sleeping quarters so firefighters, paid or volunteer, can stay at the station, ready to respond around the clock to alarms.

But first he and his crew want to know what Vale residents want and will support.

The agency recently mailed out a short survey and also posted a link on its Facebook page. The five-question survey seeks a sense of how much a month residents would be willing to pay dedicated to fire protection. The survey also provides options for how the extra money could be used.

Survey responses are due by Thursday, April 14.

Vale Fire Chief Jess Tolman wants to hear what the residents want for their fire department, and what they’re willing to pay for. (The Enterprise/LES ZAITZ)

Driving Tolman’s concerns is the condition of the 1985 Pierce Dash Quint ladder truck, bought secondhand by the department in 2010.

He said ladder trucks from Vale and nearby agencies were vital in 2018 when Dentinger’s Feed burned. The ladder trucks helped keep the fire from spreading to nearby buildings.

Vale’s ladder truck, however, doesn’t meet national standards and can’t pass aerial certification testing. In addition, the rear cab designed to carry two firefighters is off limits now because the seat elements are loose and the seat belts don’t work, Tolman said. It’s no longer a safe place to seat a firefighter.

The rig has increasing maintenance needs and getting parts is problematic. Tolman said the ladder truck recently was out of service for three weeks while crews waited for a single gasket needed for a repair.

He doesn’t think Vale should go the used route again. Fire departments routinely sell off older equipment when they get replacements.

“If a firehouse is done with it, there’s a reason,” Tolman said. “We adopt the problems they had.”

But a new rig will cost an estimated $800,000.

Tolman expects the department would have to borrow to make such a purchase, and that could happen if the city created dedicated funding for the department.

The agency now gets $65,000 a year from the Vale city budget and about $130,000 a year for its contract to provide fire protection to the rural area outside the city limits.

The agency has just three employees and relies on a corps of 15 volunteers for fire protection. About half the volunteers work out of town or are in jobs they can’t leave when an alarm sounds, Tolman said.

He’d like to add some part-time paid staffing to ease the load.

He wants to add the sleeping quarters so firefighters can stay on site instead of driving in from their homes when there is a fire.

And the exhaust venting system would directly carry fumes from fire rig tailpipes out of the department’s garage. The firefighters’ turnouts hang in the open in the garage, some directly behind the ladder truck.

“This greatly increases the already elevated cancer risk to the brave firefighters of our fire department,” the agency explained in its survey material.

Tolman said research shows that diesel exhaust contaminates turnouts with carcinogens.

The fire chief said he’s also anticipating that there will be new property to protect in Vale.

“There’s considerable talk of growth in the city,” Tolman said.

But improvements at his department will depend on Vale residents, he said.

He’s hoping they will support a new tax or fee dedicated solely to the fire department. The survey asks whether respondents would support a cost of $25, $30 or $35 monthly.

“Let’s do what the city residents want,” Tolman said.

He said once surveys are in, he’ll present the findings to the Vale City Council with recommendations for next steps.

But, as the survey concludes, the fire agency funding has to change.

“This type of service is no longer financially feasible,” it said.

A new fire rig is on the wish list of the Vale Fire Department. (The Enterprise/LES ZAITZ)

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