Right before one of Portland Fire & Rescue’s busiest span of days – Fourth of July weekend — the city gained a new fire chief.
Fire Chief Mike Myers was sworn in Thursday.
Myers retired as Las Vegas fire chief in 2013. He also recently worked as chief in St. Charles, Missouri, before taking the Portland position.
Myers takes the place of the recently retired Portland Chief Erin Janssens, who spent a total of nearly 28 years working with Oregon’s fire services.
Though he’s jumping into his new position so close to a very active time for fires, Myers says the Fourth of July weekend isn’t necessarily more challenging than any other day.
“There’s never a good time [to start] in the fire services. There’s always something going on,” said Myers.
“This morning we had a fire death in the city of Portland — unrelated to fireworks, unrelated to the Fourth of July. So, those types of things happen around the clock, throughout the year,” he said.
During the holiday, Fire & Rescue is keeping a watch on Portland residents traveling north to Washington to buy fireworks.
Large fireworks are legal in Washington state but they aren’t in Oregon.
The most popular types of illegal fireworks that Oregonians tend to purchase from their northern neighbors are mortars. They launch far into the air above the one-foot legal maximum height for Oregon fireworks, according to Portland Fire & Rescue Fire Marshal Nate Takara.
Takara doesn’t think the usage of Washington fireworks in Oregon is going to change this year, but Portland Fire & Rescue has preemptively started to educate the public about dangers.
“We can’t really regulate what comes in. We can only regulate what happens here,” said Takara. “We try to do public awareness as far as how it affects the neighborhood, pets, veterans, etc.”
“We have a citation process. It begins at $500 and can escalate easily up to $1,000,” said Takara.
Myers said he dealt with illegal fireworks while working in Nevada and Missouri.
“This isn’t unusual for any municipality around the country. Every municipality in an urban setting is facing similar issues that we face here in Portland,” said Myers.
Myers said it’s common that a state, or even a county, has a ban on types of fireworks while the neighboring areas do not.
“Even if you have a ban, people find a way to find the fireworks, get the fireworks in and shoot the fireworks off,” he said.
Apart from fires, Myers said he wants his tenure as chief to focus on other aspects of the job.
“If you went back a couple hundred years, and you said, ‘What are the challenges for a fire chief?’ It would probably be fire,” said Myers.
But years of public awareness campaigns from fire marshals have helped reduce the impact of fires.
“Today, 80 percent of our caller volume is actually emergency medical services related,” Myers said.
“We might have the fire, the red stuff under control, but in my opinion, cities are still burning,” he said. “It’s the medical, it’s the social health determinants that are affecting society.”
As chief, Myers said he wants to collaborate with other city departments, such as the Bureau of Transportation, to improve health through the city’s walkability.
He also wants to improve access to healthy foods and tackle the issue of food deserts, since many of the calls that Portland Fire & Rescue receive are due to heart attacks and other ailments related to obesity.
“If we don’t help as a fire department, control those things, then we’ll simply continue to run our rescues to your home, pick you up and take you to the hospital and keep doing that,” Myers said. “We’ve got to break that cycle.”