Longtime firefighter challenges incumbent

Kenny Cochran hoping to unseat Gary Larson for ECFR Position 1

ECFR Position 1 candidates

Gary Larson

Education: Associate’s degree in business management

Community involvement: President of Clark County Fire Commissioners Association, former youth soccer and basketball coach.

Phone: 834-7725

Kenny Cochran

Education: Associate’s degree

Community involvement: Founding member of the Vancouver Fire Department Honor Guard, member of Washington State Honor Guard, former youth soccer coach.

Phone: 600-4276

Kenny Cochran and Gary Larson are both longtime East County residents, and want to improve relations between the local fire district and neighboring entities.

But that’s where the similarities end.

Cochran, a career firefighter, and Larson, a retired businessman, are both running for East County Fire & Rescue Commissioner Position 1. Larson, 66, has served on the commission for 32 years.

“I enjoy what I am doing and making a contribution to the community, and giving back,” he said.

Cochran, 59, is seeking political office for the first time.

“The main reasons I’m running are for my family, the residents of East County and for my heroes of the New York City Fire Department,” Cochran said. “Right now, ECFR is doing well. That’s the time to run for office, when things are good.”

Gary Larson

Larson began his service on the fire commission in 1979, when there were no paid staff and volunteers did all the responding. Today, volunteers continue to be the lifeblood of the fire district, but with the added assistance of seven paid firefighters and three chief officers, which includes a training officer for the volunteers.

“(In prior years) we didn’t hold people to as rigid a standard,” Larson said. “If they attended a drill, then we would assume they had that particular skill. Now, we have changed that and go the extra mile, having people who are certified to sign people off on training. Now they have to prove proficiency.”

When asked if this had caused a drop in volunteers, Larson said they had lost people who didn’t have the time or felt the training was too rigorous.

Some of the standards volunteers must meet are knowing CPR, standing on a ladder properly, driving a fire truck, hooking up a hose, and operating an extinguisher.

“We use national standards set for volunteers,” he said. “About 70 percent of the fire fighting force nationwide is made up of volunteers, and last year ours gave $374,000 worth of service hours.”

If re-elected, Larson’s top priorities include continued “belt tightening” of the budget so that the ECFR district will remain solvent, working with the county to develop private bridge weight limit standards so that it is safe for fire vehicles to cross in case of emergency, and continuing to develop positive relationships with the local community. He would also like to see relationships with Washougal and Camas fire departments improved, despite a somewhat tumultuous past.

“These days, we are doing more and more of the closest unit response,” Larson said. “We are running more calls in Camas and Washougal, and we have to continue to develop and build relationships.”

A website created and managed by ECFR volunteers states that those running against the incumbents are doing so with the purpose of “hijacking” the commission, pushing for a merger between Camas and Washougal, and phasing out the volunteer firefighters. The site, www.fcomm.org, also claims that the challengers are part of a group effort, supported by the International Association of Fire Firefighters.

When asked about some of the inflammatory content on the site, Larson replied that it was based on conversations the volunteers had overheard but that he personally had not.

“I never knew my opponent at all until this campaign,” he said. “I don’t know what his stand is. I’m basing my background on conversations that were overheard in a private setting.”

Larson said relations between the three fire departments could be improved.

“It will take strong chief officers willing to hold people to a higher standard,” he said. “When there is a conflict between people, they’ll need to take it on and get it resolved. We have high hopes for the new Camas chief, and Chief Schumacher of Washougal is a fine person.”

Larson added that he is not opposed to a potential merger of the three departments, and mentioned that ECFR has had discussions in the past with both entities.

Due to the recession and decreasing tax revenues, Camas and Washougal are now involved in a trial merger.

“The effectiveness of having all the services available would be a benefit, and you’d break down barriers,” Larson said. “But in the past, I know our volunteers have not felt widely received by Camas firefighters, and if we didn’t have (as many volunteers), we couldn’t provide that same level of service.”

He added that with continued careful financial planning, ECFR could weather the current economic storm.

“We may have to cut some hours and it wouldn’t be what we wanted to do, but we have to balance the budget,” he said. “But this will pass. I’ve been around long enough to know it won’t last forever.”

Larson added that in his 32 years of service, he is most proud of having paid staff and successfully merging fire districts one and nine in 2006.

“I am very proud of our fire department and its accomplishments,” he said. “We have a strong standard in our community, the taxpayers are proud of what we’ve done, and I would like to continue doing it.”

Kenny Cochran

Cochran has been a professional paid firefighter for the Vancouver Fire Department for 26 years. He said that if elected, he would have those years of professional service experience and knowledge to draw from when dealing with the issues.

He said a merger between ECFR, Camas and the Washougal fire departments could work.

“You have to include both city officials, administration and don’t leave out the voters and the residents,” he said. “They have a say, too.”

Responding to the accusations on the “fcomm” site, Cochran said he is not running with the other two challengers, Tom Gianatasio and Brooks Cooper, on a merger platform.

“I just have one vote, one say, one opinion,” he said. “They (the web site creators) wrote it, so they will have to defend it. I’d say let them explain. It’s not us against them. We just happen to be three professional firefighters.”

Cochran said he is concerned about ECFR staffing levels and response times.

“I believe there are only two stations that are manned,” he said. “According to the (ECFR) district website, there are six stations but only two are staffed. I don’t think they respond out of the others. In Vancouver, we have 10 stations, staffed 24-7. I want to try to make (ECFR) more like that. To do that, we definitely need to keep the volunteers.”

Cochran would also like to evaluate the current volunteer program.

“Some volunteers can do certain things, but when Vancouver comes to East County for mutual aid, we need to know who is going in and what qualifications they have. I’d like to bring the volunteers up to a higher level, a professional level. I’d like to send a fire engine to Vancouver and have them know exactly what they’re getting.”

He added that while ECFR has first responders, it does not have paramedics.

“There are a lot of limitations on what people can do, which is why I want to elevate the level of the volunteer program. I don’t want to get rid of the volunteers at all.”

He also repeatedly emphasized that he and the other two challengers were not running as a group.

“I’m running for a position, he said. “I heard there was one open and I’m getting toward the end of my career. I wanted to continue my commitment to be a public servant.”

When asked why voters should cast their ballots for him over the incumbent, Cochran cited his years of knowledge and experience as a professional firefighter.

“I also have five additional years spent in the volunteer ranks,” he said. “I don’t have anything against my opponent, but the residents of East County deserve a good leader, not a politician. A smooth politician isn’t necessarily a good leader. That’s where I come in.”

Cochran is a member of the International Association of Firefighters and has been to a union meeting in Camas.

“They have endorsed me and it’s no secret,” he said. “But they didn’t bring me into their meeting with an agenda.”

Cochran said building better relationships between ECFR and the Camas Fire Department would take a real effort on the part of the leadership.

“Those feuds go way back,” he said. “But I don’t know how much longer East County can be on their own. Usually, when there’s an issue, it’s the leadership. The firefighters get along great.”

In closing, Cochran added that he would provide steady leadership.

“I will lead by integrity and character, not with authority,” he said.