TALENT — Without liability insurance, the Bear Creek Community Emergency Response Team has chosen to disband. No public body stepped forward to offer coverage for the 34 volunteers.
The team's lack of insurance was discovered in November 2012 while Talent, Jackson County Fire District No. 5, Jackson County Emergency Management and others were planning for a spring exercise in flood preparedness. Talent stepped in to provide insurance during the exercise. After that, the issue languished.
"Nobody took the lead to sit down and get it worked out," said Bob McKean of Phoenix, who helped form the team in 2008.
Fire District 5 has provided space for the team's equipment and training since the team's start.
Jackson County Emergency Management was the team's activating agency, according to an email sent by team member Katherine Lehman to county Emergency Manager Mike Curry and other officials informing them of the decision to disband, which was made at an Aug. 7 meeting.
Activation of the team was never a county responsibility, said Curry. His efforts were limited to helping the team find a home and getting equipment with grants.
Several parties thought Jackson County Emergency Management was covering the liability insurance.
"There was an assumption that the county emergency manager had our backs on this," said McKean. "We found out he didn't."
"It was our understating that they were covered by Jackson County Emergency Management," said District 5 fire Chief Dan Marshall. "We have never covered them on any kind of workers' comp."
Curry sees the situation differently.
"They belong to Fire District 5," said Curry. "It's a bit of a finger-pointing thing. It was obviously a misunderstanding between Chief Marshall and the CERT volunteers that they were a Jackson County entity."
In her email, Lehman noted that Ashland and Jacksonville CERTs are set up to be activated by the towns' fire departments, while police activate the Central Point team.
The activators in those towns provide the liability insurance.
Lehman declined to be interviewed after being contacted through email.
Curry said Marshall told the team they were under county direction and that the team never questioned that assertion.
"I don't own CERT teams. They have never been directed by me," said Curry. "These are questions they should have asked four years ago."
About 25 residents of Talent, Phoenix and surrounding areas took CERT training in 2008 through a city of Ashland program, then looked for an agency where they could train and store gear. The members wanted to provide emergency services in their home area.
At that time, both Talent and Fire District 5 said they didn't have personnel or funds to coordinate the volunteer organization or to apply for grants. District 5 has its own volunteer firefighter group.
Jackson County Emergency Services ended up applying for grants that secured equipment, while District 5 provides a home site.
Talent explored continuation of insurance coverage after the exercise, but ran into difficulties, said City Manager Tom Corrigan.
"It was somewhat of a liability issue. We eventually said no," said Corrigan. "The insurance company at the time didn't cover things outside the city."
McKean said the group did not hear back from Talent, District 5 or Jackson County on the insurance issue, leading to the decision to disband. Curry told the group he would get things worked out about a month ago, McKean said, but they never heard back from him.
"Last I heard, the city of Talent was going to get insurance coverage for that group," said Marshall. "That was in the spring."
All interviewed expressed regret that the team will not continue.
"It was not my intent for them to fold," said Curry. "I wished we could have worked something out. (The district) was the logical place for them."
"They have done a good job and they have worked hard and they are trained," said Marshall. "A lot of their equipment needs had been met."
Corrigan, a former firefighter, said the group's services would be invaluable if a Bear Creek flood threatened manufactured home parks along the waterway.
"It's not good. You have a large group of trained volunteers you hate to lose," said Corrigan.
The last of CERT's gear was cleared out from Fire District 5's headquarters on Thursday. Central Point and Jacksonville CERTs received the equipment.
Bear Creek CERT members have been encouraged to join other local teams and some already have, said McKean. A former EMT, McKean is affiliating with the Medical Reserve Corp.
"Folks want to move on. They are very disappointed with what has happened this year," said McKean.
Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.