Falls City lies nestled in the foothills of Oregon’s coastal range. The town boasts a general store, a post office, a bed and breakfast, two restaurants, a creek running through the middle of town, and, of course, several beautiful waterfalls.
The Falls City Fire Department started off as not much more than a group of men willing to serve their community and a water pump across the street from what is now the general store. The water pump was a “force pump” located in front of the Falls City Hotel, which was located on the southwest corner of Main Street and Third Street, kitty-corner to our present day station. The pump drew from a well of “sulphure” water and served as the town’s early water source for fires and primary fire protection.
In 1912, the good people of this former bustling logging town organized the volunteer fire department under the direction of our first fire chief, H. Zimmerman. The earliest known equipment consisted of multiple hand carts that were spread out across the town. In 1922, a four-wheeled hose cart was built. Firefighters pulled it either by hand or by a car to get hoses wherever the fire was in town.
In 1948, Falls City Fire Department was approached by the Southwest Polk Rural Fire Protection District, our neighboring district which had formed only the year prior. They offered our town fire department a contract to provide emergency services to the southwest corner of their rural district that they were unable to provide appropriate and prompt coverage to. Falls City Fire Department accepted and we have maintained that relationship and varying forms of that contract for the last sixty-nine years.
Frank C. Brown, fire chief from 1927-1955, oversaw the first SW Polk contract. He also oversaw the purchase of our department’s first official fire truck – a 1928 Model A Ford. The old Model A was replaced in 1947 by a new 1947 Ford 500 GPM Pumper Truck and a new 1948 Ford F-3 250 GPM Pumper Truck was added the following year as part of the SW Polk contract. The department had 35 volunteer members. Just like today’s members, the members of the 1940’s participated in the town’s search and rescue work as well.
By 1965, when our current E123 was bought, the department had grown to a group of men willing to serve their community and a brand new building with three bays had just been built – still across the street from the general store. Fire chiefs over the years included Virgil Taylor, Floyd Brown, Bernard “Slim” Freer, John Gilbert, and Paul Bailey.
In the mid-1980s, Robert Young became fire chief. By then, the bays had expanded to four, personnel had grown, and women and medics were added to the roster. Chief Young has led the department out of the 1980s and through the 1990s all the way to today. In the spring of 2004, he oversaw the demolition of the old station. In the spring of 2005, he watched as the promised funds were not there to build a new station and the community and its leaders rallied around the department to find grants, hold fundraisers, and find every last extra penny they could until we finally came home to our new station with an attached community center in the late winter of 2006. The new station has six bays and sits across the street from the general store.
Today, we serve the 1,000 citizens of Falls City and the 1.2 square mile town’s visitors. Our jurisdiction within Southwest Polk Rural Fire Protection District adds an additional 18.125 square miles as well as a highway used to transport timber, a mountain bike trail park, two summer camps with events year-round, and farm- and timber-land as far as the eye can see. We also provide additional aid as necessary throughout the entire district’s 123 square miles and over 6,100 people. Through our city and district contracts we have mutual aid agreements with Dallas Fire and EMS, Polk Fire District #1, the City of Salem, Amity Fire District, Sheridan Fire District, and West Valley Fire District, totaling just over 631 square miles. It is not an uncommon request for us to provide standby coverage at a neighboring station or on scene support. Additionally, we have an agreement with the Oregon Department of Forestry, which oversees 1,094 square miles in Polk County, including timberland above and around our town and a Bureau of Land Management site which are included in our agreement. Last year, we responded to a total of 241 calls. 160 of those were within our own town’s boundaries while an additional 81 calls took us beyond our borders and into the districts we serve in the surrounding area.
Whether in town helping our neighbors or around the region helping our fire neighbors, Falls City Fire Department provides fire, rescue, pre-transport medical, and public education services. Included in our fire and rescue services, we respond to all fire related calls, hazardous material incidents, motor vehicle accidents, and various kinds of rescues, including water rescues from our beautiful waterfalls throughout the year.
We are a 100% volunteer fire department. We have 37 members divided into the three divisions of Fire Suppression and Rescue, EMS, and Support. We also have a chaplain and a public information officer who are not assigned divisions. We are constantly striving to improve in all divisions in our training and on scene. This hard work paid off for us and our community during our last ISO evaluation in 2014 when our rating went from a 5 to a 4, saving our community members money on their insurance – a benefit that we are also able to extend to our section within the Southwest Polk Rural Fire Protection District.
We are also heavily involved in the community that rallied around us in our time of need. We have a special partnership with our town’s two schools. Every year, our volunteers go into the schools in October for National Fire Prevention Week. We teach the children fire safety tips and allow the little ones to grow accustomed to our turnouts and other gear so they won’t be so afraid in an emergency. We also visit the schools five other times throughout the school year delivering safety tips classroom to classroom and interacting with the kids. This year, teachers have even requested that we expand this program so that they can better integrate our tips into their required safety curriculum! Every year, our pyrotechnicians light the fireworks for Homecoming and help build and light the Homecoming bonfire. We also provide medics for the sports teams – last year we had the joy of cheering on the football team all the way to state!
We participate in town events, like the 4th of July parade, the Christmas tree lighting every December, the Community Easter Egg Hunt, and the community resources night where families go to find out about social services and local agencies. We also host town events, such as free community CPR classes so that people will have the proper training needed to save a loved one until we can get there and take over for them; our yearly children’s Halloween party with food, candy, and fun activities out of the rain; and our new summer event, National Night Out where we bring first responders from across the spectrum and the state to talk with the parents and kids about safety and their jobs while they interact with them over food and games.
We kick off every December with a Toys for Tots toy drive at our closest Wal Mart – a town over. These toys are distributed throughout the county, including in our town. The week the schools let out for winter break, one of our volunteers dresses up as Santa and a handful of our volunteers dress their uniforms up festively and we go classroom by classroom delivering a sweet treat with a holiday safety tip and a little toy of some kind donated by our association. The littlest kids are brought to us so that they can sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what they want for Christmas this year. Their excitement is heartwarming to watch! The drill night before Christmas, we take the toys allotted to our town from the toy drive and take out the engines with a volunteer dressed as Santa assigned to each and deliver presents door to door to houses that signed up. Finally, some of our volunteers spend Christmas Eve morning down at the station handing out Christmas dinner kits to the families who have signed up through another organization. We are a small town. These are truly our neighbors. Their children are all of our children. We do not want anyone hungry on Christmas or heartbroken that Santa forgot them. Christmas is a very special time at our station – it is a somber reminder of the reality so many of us live in but also of great joy as we are welcomed at each door with thanks and squeals of childish delight.
There have been many changes to the department in the last 105 years, but some things haven’t changed, like our location across the street from the general store and the fact that no matter what we do, at our heart, we are helping our friends and neighbors.