-Submitted by Jim Arnold, CFD, Retired
I just wanted to say a few things about the sales tax and its value to not only the police, fire, and parks, but to every citizen that lives, works, or shops in the City of Claremore. Many people are not aware of how that sales tax of one cent is divided and the purpose, which has been the same since the tax was enacted. This sales tax is vital to the police and fire departments, as it allows them to keep their heads above water and provide the best possible service to the residents of Claremore.
I was hired a few months after the loss of two firefighters at the same fire. I started on the 1st of September in 1985. The Claremore Fire Department lost two members of its family in a fire that was an arson in a building that did not meet code as far as exit pathways and door swing. There were other things that added to the situation that night that resulted in the loss of both Jim McElwain and Guy Cooper. When I arrived in September, there were still several members of the department suffering with the mental turmoil from that night. There were no real policies or channels to be made available to these fire department members who just lost a large portion of their family. There were several people who never completely got over the events of that night which had hampered them in the duties at the scene. Many were second guessing the actions and methods of controlling the next fire they were on or being the Command at a particular response. PTSD was not a common term in the 1980s, but it wasn’t any less of a problem for people placed in certain situations such as firefighters, police officers, first response medical and ambulance personnel or those who were not part of the military.
Claremore Fire was equipped at a level lower than the majority of paid departments and less than many of the volunteer departments. The revenue from the one cent sales tax was just starting to make its way to the department before my arrival. The need was so great and the funding was so low, it would take a few more years for the equipment to begin to bring CFD up to a level which they should have been at several years before.
The manning levels and the lack of equipment were not only an issue that fatal night, but at each structure fire they responded to. We were lucky to have a couple of capable fire chiefs who wanted to see the department progress and knew the value and safety that could only be given with the spending of money to properly equip the department. That money generated by the sales tax not only brought Claremore Fire into the beginning of the modern ages, but it also brought the Claremore Police Department into that same modern age. If you were living here in the mid- to late 80s, you will remember the police department being located in a small building next to Dot’s Café and officers using vehicles that had been patched together by the shop as the railroad crossings took their toll on their vehicles suspension. Their vehicles were short in number, so many of them were driven by all three shifts, which was basically 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There were a few vehicles that were not needed on the slower shifts, but the good ones were the ones driven and it wasn’t long until those vehicles were worn out just like the others.
The fire department was also able to buy a new engine in 1986, where the next newest one was built in the early 70s. The department’s vital protective equipment was so out of date and now was being replaced on a more regular basis. Having that sales tax dedicated to the maintenance and operations allowed the use of other budget money for payroll and the hiring of additional personnel. The manning levels were so low at the (then) two stations, that there were only two firefighters assigned to Station 2, and many times that station was manned with only one person and at times just shut down for the shift. That changed after the loss of the two men. The department could now hire some additional personnel for the new station located north of the high school.
Over the next 10 years, our equipment began to improve. Our training improved dramatically, with all newly-hired firefighters being sent to the OSU Fire Service Training Academy for both Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2. In the last half of the 80s, all of our new personnel attended EMT Training. Today, Claremore responds to medical calls with department paramedics while working with the ambulance service, no longer playing power games like in years past.
In 1985, if the crews used their air packs, they either had to run the empty bottles to Tulsa the next day and pay to get them filled or, in an emergency, we could call one of the volunteer departments in the area and they would be kind enough to have someone open their station and allow us to use their air system. I am not afraid to say that it was very embarrassing to have to call a department that ran only on donations and some special taxes, but had better equipment than the largest town in the county.
Claremore had some great people working the department, which did wonders with what they had to work with in the early 80s and before. However, everything they did had to be homemade and their outside training was very limited. There were some outdated beliefs by not just the fire administration, but by some city officials who thought the trucks should stay in the station unless they were on a fire run. Basically, they were told if they were not seen they couldn’t be doing anything wrong.
The loss of Jim and Guy, along with the sales tax money, allowed the department to do some community things like free installation of smoke detectors and community CPR classes. They raised money from local businesses and received a grant through McDonald’s to purchase a fire safety trailer. The trailer was used by CFD, but we also entered into an agreement with other county departments where they could also use the Safety Trailer for their residents. We began deciding for the personnel to visit several of the businesses to find out exactly what those companies had and where the dangerous places were. This was new for Claremore and the industry welcomed the department with open arms. They wanted us to know about any issues in the facility we needed to be concerned with and they wanted advice on what they should do to protect the employees in the event of an emergency of some type. We would schedule three days for the visit so each of the shifts could gain the same information. I was surprised at the excitement shown by our industries and businesses; some went as far as ordering food for the crews to have while wrapping up their visit and it was helpful to be in a setting where we all could ask for information on both sides.
We started our Fire and Life Safety Inspection program to educate the business owners and the fire personnel on areas that could hamper our actions, as well as the safety of their employees. Most people do not realize just how much training and experience it takes to be a safe, progressive firefighter. This training is expensive, even when we were able to get the course for nothing, but there were transportation, lodging, and miscellaneous expenses for equipment and training manuals. This was lacking in the past due to low funding. This was partially due to the department not educating our elected officials or the public.
Claremore Fire was not one of the departments looked to as being progressive, even though there were several department members who would take outside training on their own time, hoping to do their job a little bit better and a whole lot safer for everyone. After the loss of life, there was a ground swell of support for the department and a sincere feeling of loss by the community. Claremore was a growing city in the early 80s, but was still small enough where people either knew the person or a member of their family and many could see the hurt and loss in the eyes and actions of the remaining department embers.
Training was a priority in the late 80s and 90s, as well as continuing today. Claremore became a leader in specialized training and community contact over the next couple of decades. Claremore Fire did not have members quitting or just walking away from the career; it takes too much to become a part of the department to not be sincere in your goals to be an exceptional member of the department and community. Many of the towns around northeast Oklahoma will lose a good member to Tulsa or OKC Fire every couple of years. Claremore Fire does not have a history of this happening. They have lost a total of four people in 40 years, and three of those were gone within a two-year period. The only thing that I really had to deal with was other departments and communities wanting to spur an interest of a certain officer or two in the hope they would accept a position of rank with them and leave CFD. Truthfully, I was asked about five or six of the members over the years and I did not discourage anyone thinking of improving their situation, along with making another department just a little better due to their training and leadership. In my mind, that is one of the best compliments a department can have, a reputation or progressive intelligent department members being courted by another community. The other benefit of that is the type of applicant we would have in the applicant testing process.
After the sales tax, along with a determination by the department’s members that they did not want to have to go through the loss of another department member, CFD rose from the bottom the list as far as training, and was considered a department to look at.
Everything has not been perfect since the passing of the first sales tax extension, as there were some political games being played. For example, city officials essentially wanted to show the union they could do something like laying off the six firefighters I had hired before, and as I was retiring. This, in my opinion, only was a standoff where it was said there were not enough funds to staff at the current level and they let these talented dedicated rookies be laid off and be the example. I retired New Year’s Eve in 2001 so that is more years back then what I want to remember. In the last 18 months, the department has finally gotten back to the level they were 18 years ago. I can’t speak for everything today, but the department was one of only five Level A Hazardous Materials Teams in the state. They formed a dive rescue/recovery team and are all certified divers, and they have continued to improve on their Emergency Medical Training.
Claremore Fire developed an entrance exam process that was validated as one of the most difficult in the state. We would have an average of 200 applicants for each opening. Our list was active for one calendar year and we would retest again. We had people take the exam four or more times just because they wanted to be part of Claremore Fire. We were hiring the best of the best when it came to new firefighters, which has a lot to say about the quality of personnel on Claremore Fire Department. I firmly believe that if we had not received the sales tax and had the community support the renewal each time it was put on the ballot, our police and fire would be lagging 10 or more years behind. The day the tax is defeated will be the first day in the slow degrading of both departments.
The only thing I would do differently is to make the sales tax a permanent tax, still divided 20/20/20 between police, fire, and parks with 40% going to capital improvements. That would be an ideal situation, along with the language that was in the first petition, where the tax could not be taken for other city projects and could not be used to fill the salary or benefit budgets. One of the blessings about the sales tax income is that as the community grows, the tax receipts grow along with that, hopefully keeping the department’s equipment up to date and the personnel trained for the future.
The department has suffered two losses in the past five years, the first being Captain Jason Farley, who drowned after his last rescue of people trapped in their home because of a flooding issue. He stepped off into a drainage ditch that could not be seen, or the rapid movement of the water could not be seen because of the depth. Jason was drawn into the drainpipe, where he became wedged in the pipe and drowned about 50 feet down the line. Zane Copper, the other firefighter who was trying to hold Jason from going into the pipe, was actually pulled in first and for whatever reason, his size, body position when he entered the pipe allowed him to survive the ride the full length of pipe and came out in a drainage creek, even though he had basically drowned also. He began breathing again after being discharged for the pipe into a creek. This firefighter suffered some lung issues from the water that had entered his lungs. It was several months before he was free of any problems.
The department also suffered the loss of Battalion Chief Marty Osborne, who suffered from a mysterious lung infection. Marty was in ICU in Tulsa for a period till they ran out of ways to treat it. He was flown to Baptist Hospital in OKC to a pulmonary specialist group that is rated one of the best in the country. Marty was there for many weeks before passing. This was an individual who was in great shape, never smoked, or did anything to harm his body. He was a diver, as well as one of the founding members of the Hazardous Materials Response Team.
I had always said that I would not let it happen again where we were remembering the value to all of us at a funeral for another Claremore firefighter. I did make it through the remainder of my career without having to deal with the loss, but being gone for over a decade did not lessen the hurt or guilt of wondering if I could have done something while I was still with the department to prevent it. We all know that you can’t make things any better by blaming yourself. All these members were exceptional people and were striving to be the best that they could be with what they had to work with.
I had the pleasure of hiring both Marty and Jason. Marty was the first person to be hired off the new hiring process we developed in the mid 80s and Jason also took the same testing path, and he came out first in his hiring group. Marty had scored the highest among all the applicants until Jason, who beat him by one point I believe, and he didn’t let Marty forget it.
I have mentioned the exceptional group of people that make up the Claremore Fire Department and how they are really a family. Most of them will spend more time with the crew at the station then they do with their family, as most work some type of second job and that takes away even more time from the family. Right now, the job that took their parent away from them is what they are looking to do in the future, or they are doing that now.
Jim McElwain: his son has been a part of the department for 30 years
Guy Cooper: his son is now on Claremore Fire Department
Marty Osborne: his son is on Catoosa Fire Department and completing his EMT Certification and, I believe he will strive to become a paramedic. His daughter graduated nursing school while Marty was in ICU, but many of the department members were there to support her.
Jason Farley: Captain Farley’s daughter is a student at OU, and his wife still lives in the area. Chris Hayes, who is Jason’s best friend, and also a Claremore firefighter, has continued to keep the memories of these firefighters alive for years to come. He opened J Farley’s Pub in honor of the fallen heroes.
Many years ago, when we had moved our administrative offices to the old Will Rogers Library in Lynn Riggs Park, the junior high art class painted two memorial pictures of Jim and Guy on the actual brick wall, which was uncovered during some minor remodeling. These two pieces of art are an unbelievable likeness of both men, who gave all they could doing what they could to make their community just a little better and safer. When I heard that the building had be given to a historical group to use, I was worried and a little upset about the loss of the paintings. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the brick wall was boxed up as it still stood in the building and transported to the new administrative offices at the corner of Blue Starr and Sioux. They said the person who moved them was extra careful to make sure nothing was lost or damaged. If you have an interest, please contact the CFD Chief’s Office and make a trip to see this one-of-a-kind memorial completed by the students and their teacher. I must remember those students are now 40 years old, but the painting is everlasting.
Sorry if this sounded like a history of the fire department and in many ways, it was, but if the sales tax was not enacted, there wouldn’t have been such a positive image of the department to tell you about.
The citizens of Claremore are very lucky to have:
An exceptional fire department doing its best to provide the citizens with not only Fire Protection, but Fire Education, Emergency Medical Response, Citizen CPR, and at times providing first aid treatment at the school football games, as well as various activities around the communities.
The people of Claremore enjoy a police department with dedicated long-term officers who are receiving training that is directly related to the sales tax. Over my career I would hear, and I am sure the current department’s members hear the same statements, like “I don’t know why you guys need all that equipment when I never see you working a large fire.” That may be true, but it is hard sometimes to make them realize that the fires may be small because the department got there quickly and knew what to do when they arrived. It’s kind of like saying we don’t need a military because no one is invading us yet. At that point, it’s too late. That 1986 E-1 Fire Engine we purchased in ’86 cost a total of $126,000. Today, that same equipped engine will run close to $700,000. The fire department does an excellent job in not only fighting fires, but also Emergency Medical Response ,which is used more often.
The Claremore Parks Department, including the rec center and the Expo, is still as active today as it was when it first opened. They have a great reputation with both of those facilities, along with many soccer fields, baseball and softball fields, Claremore Lake, bicycle paths and walking paths. The only negative I have heard about the Expo or rec center is that they should have been built bigger, which is a good problem since it appears all the facilities are being used as designed.
Claremore residents and the people visiting the community have a well trained and professional police department, who, like the fire department, works hard at being a benefit to the city and its citizens. They strive to provide a service that is not always appreciated if you are the one receiving the ticket for excessive speed or running a stop sign. But those same officers that write you a ticket will be the ones to come to your aid in the event of several possible negative experiences you may run into. Claremore is a great place to live and raise your family or to retire in. Our crime rate is very low, and these officers do their best to keep it that way. We can feel secure and you can always ask the officer a question or if you need an officer to come to a meeting or event, pick up the phone and request that service. They work very hard at doing an extremely difficult job and they would not have been able to obtain the needed training as well as proper equipment to do the best job possible if it were not for the sales tax.
If you don’t approve the sales tax, I don’t know for certain if you will see layoffs of police and fire, but you will not see a new one hired when one retires. If there is something that bothers you about the wording of the proposal, then pass it this time and spend the next couple of years researching the changes that would be positive or negative and don’t just react because you are mad at the electric, trash, parks, police, or fire. Don’t make them and the residents suffer from something they didn’t know or have anything to do with your issue.
We are a reactive culture, not a forward positive one. When you have a firefighter or police officer hurt or killed, everyone runs out and pushes to buy better radios, bulletproof vests, a whole list of things they have been requesting for several years. When spending is reasonable, especially for protective equipment, you can’t wait till someone pays the ultimate price. We all need to start looking at the positive in things instead of looking at a negative that probably doesn’t exist, but we don’t trust. If you want to know something, ask and I think you will be surprised on how easy it is to get an answer.
Please, if you don’t agree with something I have said or if you take it personally, I apologize for offending you, but I am being sincere about the need for this tax money. It adds to the everyday safety of the police and firefighters without really being noticed in the eyes of the public. Once that tax money is gone or placed in a general fund, the lack of it will increase the chances of someone getting hurt or worse. If you have questions, please go forward and ask someone. I am sure if you have an open mind, you will find an acceptable answer to your question.