La Grande Rural Fire Chief Larry Wooldridge’s days of responding to 3 a.m. emergency calls are not over, but his days of driving first responder vehicles quickly through Ladd Canyon in icy conditions soon will be.
Wooldridge has been named the new chief of the Tangent Rural Fire Department in Linn County. Wooldridge will begin his new job Jan. 2, 2019.
“It is an excellent opportunity. I’m excited,” Wooldridge said.
Wooldridge has been with the La Grande Rural Fire Department for 10-1/2 years, the last 9-1/2 as its chief. Wooldridge has also served as the head of overall firefighting operations in Union County in recent years as the Union County Fire Defense Board Chief.
He said leaving the Grande Ronde Valley will be difficult.
“I have loved the area, (and) the surrounding districts have been very welcoming,” he said.
Mike Barry, chief of the Imbler Rural Fire Department, said Wooldridge has had an enormously positive impact on firefighting operations in Union County.
“He has brought us a long way, improving our cooperation and skills,” Barry said. “The bottom line is we are going to miss him a lot.”
Barry credits Wooldridge with being able to get local fire departments excited about making changes.
“He creates a vision and then gets people to buy into that vision,” he said of Wooldridge.
Wooldridge has found local fire departments receptive to changes he proposed.
“They were at the point where they wanted to move forward,” the La Grande rural fire chief noted.
One of his biggest steps was creating a box alarm system that all of Union County’s fire departments are tied into. Barry said the system allows crews and specific vehicles and equipment to reach blazes faster.
“(The alarm system) gets the right people, vehicles and equipment needed for a call there earlier in the process,” he said.
The Union County Dispatch Center is a key part of the box alarm system. When there is a fire, the incident commander — the individual in charge of directing firefighting operation — calls the Union County Dispatch Center with a code. The code indicates which fire departments are to respond and what type of equipment they are to bring.
A dispatch center worker then instantly relays the code to the pagers of the firefighters of the appropriate department. Should the fire level escalate, a code requiring additional fire departments to respond is sent out.
Because the code issued tells fire departments which type of equipment is needed, they never come with unnecessary items, Wooldridge said.
“It really helps our efficiency,” he noted.
Wooldridge is also credited with helping to boost the quality of his department’s vehicles and firefighting equipment. For example, about two years ago, the La Grande Rural Fire Department added a new command vehicle that has made the department more nimble, efficient and better able to communicate in emergency situations.
The command vehicle, a marked Ford F-250, is equipped with many items the department did not have, such as a cellphone booster, which allows responders in areas with poor cellular service to successfully make calls. The truck also has a repeater, which is a combination of a radio receiver and a radio transmitter that receives a weak or low-level signal and retransmits it at a higher level or higher power, so the signal can cover longer distances.
Following improvements such as these in Union County, it may come as no surprise that Wooldridge was named Tangent’s next fire chief by the Tangent Fire District Board of Directors. The board chose Wooldridge over eight other qualified candidates, according to the Covallis Gazette-Times.
“He was the unanimous No. 1 choice. The reason most of them gave was his experience and how he dealt with the board. They just felt he would be a really good fit for the department and the community,” said Scott Casebolt, former Tangent fire chief.
“We had quite a few good candidates, and he clearly rose to the top,” Casebolt added.
Wooldridge said he hopes to be with the Tangent Rural Fire Department for years to come.
“I love what I do. There’s no short-term for me. I’m looking at long-term and years of service,” said Wooldridge, who came to Union County from Amity, where he had been a member of its fire department for 21 years.
Wooldridge is the only paid member of the La Grande Rural Fire Department, which has about 30 volunteers. The Tangent Rural Fire Department, however, has five paid positions — its chief, an assistant chief, two captains and an administrative assistant. The fire department also has three college student “sleepers” who sleep at the Tangent station and work regular, volunteer shifts.
Wooldridge said Tangent’s staffing situation will make his hours a little more manageable. Presently, as the La Grande rural fire chief, he is responsible for responding to a wide variety of calls around the clock.
“(In Tangent) I will not feel as if I am being tugged from all sides quite as much,” he said.
Wooldridge, who grew up in the Amity area, will be closer to family in Tangent. His brother Ray Wooldridge is a lieutenant with the Albany Fire Department.
The La Grande Rural Fire Department is now accepting applications for Wooldridge’s successor. Applications are due by Dec. 7. For information call 541-963-6895.