Fire chief and two commissioners resign from OIFR | In-depth coverage

Two fire commissioners and the fire chief resigned from Orcas Fire and Rescue during a regularly scheduled board meeting on June 17, with more than 50 audience members in attendance.

Fire Chief Holly vanSchaick’s last day will be June 30. Fire commissioners Tim Fuller and Jim Biddick have also resigned, leaving Randy Gaylord, Brian Ehrmantraut and Kate Hansen, all of whom were elected this past November. The Sounder contacted vanSchaick for a statement, but she has not responded.

“Over the past week, we have experienced a big loss of leadership at Orcas Fire and Rescue. We are now without a chief, assistant chief, two commissioners and a captain — positions that were filled just one week ago,” Gaylord told the Sounder. “It’s never a good time for this amount of change at the same time. Fortunately, we have a strong and robust corps of volunteer firefighters and EMTs, and we are fully staffed with professional EMTs and paramedics, including folks who work overtime and cover shifts. In talking to people this last week, I remain confident and assure the public that the mission of saving lives and property remains as strong as ever at Orcas Fire and Rescue. And I invite anyone concerned with our ability to continue the mission to bring that to the attention of any commissioner.”

On May 21, Chief vanSchaick’s lawyer notified the board of her decision to leave the department and submitted a separation agreement. The contract terms were negotiated over several weeks by attorneys for the chief and the district. VanSchaick signed the contract on June 14 and submitted it to the board for approval on June 17. The terms include pay for time worked; earned paid time off; a portion of vacation earned; nine months severance pay and a release of claims.

Before the board’s vote, a handful of community members and department volunteers made public comments, primarily defending vanSchaick and criticizing the commissioners.

Chair Ehrmantraut and Commissioner Hansen expressed sadness and surprise at vanSchaik’s desire to leave the department. Fuller called it a “shitty day” and said he had nothing but the utmost respect for the fire chief. Gaylord spoke about the commission’s proper handling of the resignation process, and said he considered the separation agreement a “compromise.”

Chief vanSchaick, the fire chief since August 2023, told the room, “I absolutely want to stay. I came here thinking this would be the last fire department I worked for.” She cited the commissioners questioning the validity of her original contract as a reason for departing. “I will not stand for another woman being called hysterical or too soft.”

The fire commission accepted vanSchaick’s proposal to separate from the district by a vote of 3-2. Gaylord, Ehrmantraut and Hansen approved the agreement, while Fuller and Biddick voted against it. After the decision, the audience shouted, “Shame!”

After a 10-minute recess, Fuller and Biddick submitted their letters of resignation. Other personnel matters covered at the meeting included moving Assistant Fire Chief Don Swain to a vacant position on the “D Shift” for emergency services and the resignation of Captain Jason Madeiros as an EMT due to an “aging fleet of fire equipment.”

The remaining three commissioners are beginning the next steps to fill the vacant board positions and find an interim fire chief. Every commissioner’s term is six years; Fuller’s ends in 2025 and Biddick’s in 2029. Voters registered in the district are qualified to apply at Those appointed will serve until a replacement is elected in 2025. All leads regarding the vacant chief position can be emailed to Chair Ehrmantraut at Board documents and meeting recordings are available on the OIFR website.

Investigation ruled Gaylord not at fault

The night of Dec. 18, 2023, the same evening as the first regular meeting of the new fire commission, vanSchaick’s lawyer sent an email to Gaylord, accusing him of initiating a campaign to “oust” vanSchaick and discrimination based upon sex. An independent investigation was initiated, and after four months of interviews and research, vanSchaick’s claims were deemed unsubstantiated.

According to a letter sent to vanSchaick’s attorney, the investigator “did not find the allegations of discriminatory treatment, hostile work environment and retaliation by Commissioner Gaylord to be substantiated. Likewise, she did not find that Commissioner Gaylord had violated any district policy.”

The investigation results were sent on May 21, the same day vanSchaick resigned. According to Red Canary Magazine, vanSchaick made similar accusations against the Anacortes Fire Department in 2021. The full story can be found here:

Recent statements from Orcas Fire’s Public Information Officer

Regarding vanSchaick’s departure, OIFR stated: “During her tenure, OIFR’s volunteer numbers increased significantly, and voters approved a new five-year levy. Simultaneously, Chief vanSchaick was successful in renegotiation of the union contract resulting for the first time in predictable overtime costs to the district, which is essential for long term financial planning. We are grateful for her service and wish her well in her future endeavors.”

OIFR also submitted the following press release.

The San Juan County Fire Protection District #2 Board of Fire Commissioners continued its June 17 regular meeting on Friday, June 21 at 3 p.m. The board approved two new policies before Chair Ehrmantraut added an executive session to the meeting agenda.

After a 45-minute executive session — most of it held with Fire Chief vanSchaick and Safety Officer Greg Sawyer present — the board returned to the open meeting. With no further remarks, discussion or motion, the board discussed its steps for an interim chief appointment and hiring process.

Upon opening public comment, the first commentor stated, “It continues to be concerning to me the amount of business that is conducted in executive sessions. I think the community has a right to understand the options that are being presented and discussed and rejected.”

Chief vanSchaick then submitted a public comment in response to the audience’s requests for transparency. She thanked Sawyer for arranging a meeting with Chair Ehrmantraut and explained what she offered to the board in the executive session.

“I told [Chair Ehrmantraut] that I would love to continue building and I told him the plans I had for the things we’re going to continue to build for this department in this community, and I said I need two things in return. I need job security. I need to be able to move my family here, and in order to do that, I need my contract to not be under attack,” she said. “The other thing I said that I need is to come to meetings where we can be productive and where I am not being treated like a hostile witness in a courtroom. Where I’m not being persecuted for spending too many hours doing a thing that I love and care about.”

After over 40 more minutes of public comment, the board adjourned.

Timeline of a tumultuous period for OIFR

• Scott Williams was hired in late 2016 as the new fire chief after a challenging year for the department. Following the misconduct investigation of former Fire Chief Mik Preysz – which led to his resignation that spring – Williams stepped into the position of acting chief while the board conducted its search for Preysz’s replacement. In July of that same year, San Juan County took over the finances for OIFR and discovered they had not been paying into Social Security for several years.

• In September 2021, the International Association of Firefighters Local 3911 Union released a “Vote of No Confidence” in Williams. In the vote, all eight members of the union unanimously agreed. The statement read, “Concerns regarding Mr. Williams’ competence and integrity for the job of Chief have been known without resolute action for too long. Our fire department culture is now toxic and the Chief’s job performance is negatively impacting members’ health, daily operations, volunteer response and the quality of emergency services on Orcas Island.”

A month later, the paramedics and firefighters of IAFF Local 3911 called on the Board of Fire Commissioners to “facilitate an independent investigation, led by a mutually acceptable investigator, regarding the complaints made about OIFR Chief Williams and to report to the public, where allowed or permitted by law, the findings, and proposed actions to resolve these complaints.”

Williams wrote in a statement to the Sounder, “The fire department is currently working through some internal matters and we will do so professionally and in a manner that does not affect our service to the community. When you need help and dial 911 we will be there for you because that is our goal. This is a brief note to express our commitment to our community that we are here for you.”

• In May 2023, Chief Williams announced his resignation, and vanSchaick was appointed interim fire chief after serving as assistant chief since 2021. At the same meeting, the board of fire commissioners unanimously voted to place a levy lid lift on the ballot for the Aug. 1 primary election.

• The levy lid lift was overwhelmingly rejected by voters in the August 2023 election.

• In August 2023, vanSchaick was officially appointed the new fire chief by the fire commission. It was a contentious decision by the then-commissioners. A flurry of letters and online postings urged the board to defer consideration of the chief’s appointment until after the November election when three new commission positions would be filled. The board also heard letters of support for vanSchaick from station employees and volunteers.

• A second levy lift was rejected in the November 2023 election. Voters approved three new members (Gaylord, Ehrmantraut and Hansen) of the five-seat commission, all of whom had campaigned on the promise of transparency and a re-do of the levy.

• In January 2024, the Volunteer Lieutenants of Orcas Island Fire and Rescue announced a stance of “no confidence” in commissioners Ehrmantraut, Gaylord and Hansen. The letter stated, “The volunteer officers of San Juan Fire Protection District 2, hereby submit this letter of No Confidence in Commissioners Ehrmantraut, Gaylord and Hansen. We have serious concerns about their performance, ability and intent to fulfill their sworn oath to ‘faithfully and impartially perform and discharge the duties of the office of commissioner, according to the law and the best of (their) ability.’”

• In April 2024, voters approved a five-year tax levy. The lid lift is for OIFR to provide operations for fire and emergency medical services. The new levy amount will start in 2024 at 77 cents per thousand assessed value for five years, ending in 2029. According to OIFR, the goal is to maintain staffing and existing levels of fire and medical services and a stable reserve.