Local government

New Ontario fire chief aims to keep the focus on people first, public safety always

ONTARIO – Clint Benson remembers the call at first seemed to be routine.
A pregnant woman was in labor at a rest stop near Ontario. It was 2014 and Benson recently stepped into a fulltime firefighter slot for Ontario Fire & Rescue.
“We didn’t get a lot of information so we get there and there was this family in a mini-van. She was sitting in the front seat,” said Benson.
The woman’s baby was breached. Just the feet were out.
“It was just stuck. Breach can be a pretty bad deal. The scary part was the baby wasn’t very responsive,” said Benson.
Benson hopped into the mini-van.
“I just reached in and cleared the first arm. Then, as soon as I cleared the second arm, the baby came out,” said Benson.
For a long moment, said Benson, the baby did not make a sound.
“Then, all of the sudden, I heard the best sound ever. It started to scream,” said Benson.
Benson, who was officially selected as the new chief of the Ontario Fire & Rescue Department Nov. 1, said delivering the baby was one of the most rewarding moments of his career.
“As hairy as that was, they are looking at you to solve that problem. So, when we drove away I said that was crazy but I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else on earth,” said Benson.
Benson said the breach baby incident personifies what firefighters – and other first responders – do.
“We were part of something that made a difference in two lives,” he said.
Benson, 47, replaces Terry Leighton, who retired.
“I am pretty excited. And honored. It’s a pretty awesome feeling,” said Benson.

“I come into an amazing team that can handle the day to day. I am blessed I don’t have to come in and train people.”


Benson leads eight regular firefighters and 28 volunteers.
As the new fire chief, Benson’s salary will be around $88,000 a year.
Benson said one of the challenges his department faces is an increase in calls for service while resources remain fixed.
“We are seeing our call volume go up because the community is growing and Ontario gets a lot of folks coming into town for business,” he said.
Benson, who is father to six children and whose wife, Christina is a physician’s assistant, said the job of a firefighter “comes with some challenges.”
“Some of the things we see, just a lot of tragic things that can warp your world view,” said Benson.
That’s why, said Benson, he believes a focus on his firefighters is key.
“We have a pretty close-knit group here. It’s good to have camaraderie and people you can talk to and I want to continue that,” he said.
Benson said the experience and know-how of his firefighters made the transition easier.
“I come into an amazing team that can handle the day to day. I am blessed I don’t have to come in and train people,” said Benson.
Benson said he wants to concentrate on long-range planning once he gets comfortable with his new post.
“I am passionate about planning. But my goal is to be out ahead of the department to get them what they need to succeed,” he said.
Benson said he believes the Ontario City Council is supportive of the fire department.
“They just passed a new rescue truck for us and that was exciting,” said Benson.
He said the truck will cost about $600,000 and its four-wheel drive feature will enhance the department’s ability to respond to emergencies anywhere.
“It allows us to get around in the snow and it has a little bigger water tank,” said Benson.
Benson said daily calls for the fire department have changed since he started. Now, he said, his department is responding frequently to overdoses triggered by the growing use of fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that is 50 times stronger than morphine.
Benson said when he transitioned off the front-line fire crew in August, firefighters were responding to at least two overdoses a day.
“It’s been very routine to go and bring someone back (from death),” said Benson.
Benson said there are cans of Narcan – a prescription medicine used for the treatment of opioid overdoses – on the dash of all the fire trucks. The Narcan is used often, he said.
“It is very routine for us. We had two (overdoses) this summer behind the wheel at a stoplight,” said Benson.
The danger, he said, is users of fentanyl in pill form don’t know how strong the hit will be.
“It is so inconsistent from one pill to the next. They may take it and get a good high and then the next time they stop breathing,” he said.
Benson said he always wanted to be a firefighter.
“One of our close family friends was a fire captain in Klamath Falls and he would take me to the fire station,” said Benson.
Benson moved to Ontario from Klamath Falls in 1983 when his dad, Howard, began work at Malheur Federal Credit Union. He was a late starter to the emergency responder service.
“I didn’t get into it until I was in my mid to late 30s,” he said
Before that he owned his own countertop business and worked for Holiday Engineering in Payette for 10 years. He also worked for the Payette Fire Department and at Treasure Valley Paramedics before joining the Ontario department.
Benson said his family and those he works with on a daily basis are his motivation.
“The people you work with become a family. And Christina, she is definitely making sacrifices,” he said.
Benson said through his firefighting career he learned people are survivors.
“I’ve been on calls when in your mind you think there is no way they will make it and to see that resilience is pretty amazing,” he said.
The job of a firefighter offers plenty of rewarding experiences but there are days of tragedy and frustration, said Benson.
“You see a lot of harm. Knife stabbings, drunk drivers that wipe out families. But there are a lot of positive things we take part in too,” he said.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].

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