One fire official believes equipping firefighters with body cameras will document inappropriate or illegal behavior and, hopefully, discourage it.
GRANTS PASS, Ore. — A few weeks ago, Wolf Creek fire Chief Steve Scruggs says, a man walked up to a firefighter and spit beer on her while she and an engine crew waited for law enforcement before going to a call.
Spitting beer, as it turns out, was hardly the worst offense committed against firefighters, most of them volunteers, in this tiny community north of Grants Pass.
In recent months, incidents have ranged from confrontations and vandalism to alcohol-fueled threats and attacks. Scruggs says he’s been assaulted twice in the last 1 ½ years. His glasses were knocked off and broken, and he had a cut on the corner of his eye.
Now Scruggs says equipping firefighters with body cameras will document inappropriate or illegal behavior and hopefully discourage it.
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In what appears to be a first in Oregon, the Wolf Creek Rural Fire Protection District has launched a crowdfunding attempt to purchase 10 small Wolfcom Vision body cameras, which would cost a total of $2,750.
The cameras, the same kind that police officers use, store 18 hours of video, 28,000 digital photos and 180 hours of audio. Crews would wear them while on duty.
Scruggs got the idea when he used a video camera to get images of people hanging out on the contentious Edgewood Road bridge, across from the historic Wolf Creek Inn.
The bridge provides access to the fire department’s sleeper station. In 1999, county officials declared the bridge off-limits. The Josephine County Sheriff’s Office added a second deputy to patrol Wolf Creek because of the problems, but that was before loss of funding cut the agency’s staffing by two-thirds.
A few weeks ago, someone chucked a full can of beer into the window of a firetruck crossing the bridge, and it hit the driver.
When Scruggs started using the handheld camera, people were flipping him off, but they cleared out when they realized they were on video. He’s hoping body cams will bring the same type of response.
“I think it’s a way to navigate the problem without somebody getting hurt,” he said.
Statewide associations do not track use of body cameras by fire departments. But representatives at several associations — the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office, the Oregon State Firefighters Council and the Oregon Volunteer Firefighters Association — were not aware of any departments in Oregon that use body cameras.
The Wolf Creek sleeper station, which has been a target of vandalism, allows staffing for round-the-clock response, part of improvements to the department that improved the insurance rating in March. It’s a boost that could save property owners about $200 in their insurance rates, Scruggs estimates.
He suspects the department is being targeted because it is taking a stronger stance on illegal fire activity. When he arrived five years ago, he steered practices toward educating people about fire laws before taking action, but no longer.
Some people appreciate that the law defines when and where you can burn debris on your property — an important tool in rural Oregon — but for others fire represents something else.
“A lot of people use that for their recreation,” he said. Sometimes, the gatherings involve alcohol.
Fires might involve noxious materials, such as tires and plastics. Fire setters might lack the water or equipment to extinguish escaped flames.
“People have a tendency to start fires; they don’t have the means to put them out,” he said.
Some people responded to educational efforts over the years. Others indicated they felt harassed. The department posted information that scofflaws promptly tore down.
Scruggs figured enough time had gone into education. In May the department implemented a policy citing people who violate existing fire laws.
“If you have an illegal fire, you’re going to get a bill for us responding and putting it out,” he said. The department is basing the fine on the state fire marshal’s conflagration deployment guidelines. Fines vary according to the effort involved.
Fire prevention is part of his job, Scruggs explained. “The people here are counting on us to protect them.”
In the past few weeks, problems have escalated from fire scenes to other emergency calls, and Scruggs worries that people are listening to a dispatch scanner and showing up just to cause problems.
One incident with ongoing repercussions happened May 21, when a 20-year-old man was fatally injured in a rollover crash on Lower Wolf Creek Road.
After medics responded, several of the man’s friends and relatives showed up. People wanted a medical helicopter summoned, Scruggs said. The fire department requested one, but a helicopter wasn’t available. The scene turned confrontational, including someone driving recklessly and tailgating the ambulance as it left, according to a report to state police.