Sep. 24—UNION COUNTY — Firefighters with four departments in Union and Wallowa counties will soon have extra breath and be lighter on their feet.
The Imbler Rural, Elgin Rural, La Grande Rural and Joseph fire departments have been awarded a $344,000 federal grant for the purchase of approximately 50 new air packs and 100 new air tanks, known as self-contained breathing apparatuses.
"This is very, very exciting," said Ken Patterson, a member of the Imbler Rural Department.
The air packs and tanks will replace older models that are becoming outdated. The tanks will be made of lighter material and able to hold significantly more oxygen, allowing firefighters to combat blazes for nearly twice as long as they do now.
"Firefighters will be able to stay in smoky situations longer," said Craig Kretschmer, chief of the La Grande Rural Fire Department.
Presently, local firefighters with older tanks generally have 25 minutes of oxygen when fighting fires. The upgraded tanks will provide fighters with about 45 minutes of oxygen, Patterson said.
Patterson led the effort to get a grant called "Assistance to Firefighters." The grant is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"Ken did an incredible job. He deserves a lot of credit," said Mike Barry, chief of the Imbler Rural Fire Department.
The Elgin Rural, Imbler Rural, La Grande Rural and Joseph fire departments are now beginning the process of determining which company to buy the equipment from. The air packs and tanks purchased will be compatible with the more modern ones most other fire departments in Union and Wallowa counties already have.
"They will be more interchangeable, which will make switching out much easier," said Kevin Silvernail, chief of the Elgin Rural Fire Department.
Kretschmer agrees that this will be a big plus.
"It will help put us all on the same page," he said.
Silvernail noted that when the Elgin Rural Fire Department is combating a blaze with a department like La Grande, which has the most current air packs and tanks, its firefighters cannot borrow full air tanks from La Grande firefighters.
Silvernail said because his firefighters have less borrowing options, they often must go to an air trailer provided by the La Grande Rural Fire Department to get their tanks filled. This takes more time than borrowing tanks that are already filled.
It will be at least two months before the local fire departments have their new equipment. Kretschmer is delighted that the firefighters of these departments, made up mostly of volunteers, will soon have improved tools.
"Anytime you can upgrade technology and get volunteers new equipment, it is a neat deal," he said.
Dick Mason is a reporter with The Observer primarily covering the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.