Fire Department forges ahead

  • Tue Jun 17th, 2008 8:27pm
  • News

By MARGIE DOYLE

Editor

The Fire Department Commissioners have said that they’ve heard the public and that they’re moving forward. They have a lot of work to do, if their work session meeting on March 25 is any indication.

Hiring policy

On Jan. 15, the Commissioners decided to formalize the position of Assistant Battalion Chief, at $90,000 salary. The position had not been posted. The salary and lack of notice provoked public petitions and controversy. At the suggestion of Hilary Canty, Department EMT, and Carol McCoy, member of the Fire Department Volunteers Auxiliary, a hiring policy has been drafted, based on the Orcas Island School District policy.

At a previous meeting on March 11 meeting, Commissioner Coffin expressed concerns about the Department’s ability to make “lateral moves” and to shift job duties among employees without having to publicly post the “new” position. Coffin said, “We figured out how we could resolve that.”

The draft employment policy will be reviewed by the district’s attorney before presenting it to the commissioners at a regular meeting.

Strategic Plan Review

The commissioners plan to convene a re-formed Strategic Plan review committee in April or May. The committees, formed in 2005 to consider firefighting, emergency medical services and communication, last reviewed the strategic plan in January and February of 2007. At that time, the Emergency Medical Services Long Range Planning committee expressed concerns that the cross-training requirement was leading to a decline in volunteers, and suggested that the requirement be reconsidered. A letter re-iterating those concerns was read and discussed at the March 11 meeting, and it was decided to table that discussion until the Strategic Plan review committee meets again.

Coffin restated his suggestion from the March 11 meeting that the three committees be combined into one group, and the consensus was to do so. Duke said that he’d contacted the firefighters who were interested in the review meeting, and suggested that it be in late April or early May. Olsan and Coffin agreed to contact the members of the other committees.

Coffin agreed to chair the combined meeting, although he said he was concerned that a big combined group “would be difficult to manage.” Duke said that the next strategic plan review committee meeting would be an opportunity for a briefing to hold the district accountable.

Ambulance re-imbursement

When the Commission considered Emergency Medical Service (EMS) transport reimbursement, Coffin stated that, although a system charging third party payers (insurance companies or Medicaid) for EMS transport “can be implemented with no cost, charge or trouble,” the opposition to the program is enough that “I don’t think that’s a torch we want to carry; I don’t see how that can reasonably move forward.” He suggested that perhaps some other persons within the community may want to advance the idea, and Olsan said, “The Strategic Planning Committee was so in favor of it, I’m surprised no one stepped forward.”

The District has considered the EMS transport plan since last year. At a Fire Commission meeting last July, Fire Department member Garth Eimers advised the commissioners, “You need to think about second and third order effects” of instituting a billing program. He brought up administrative costs, insurance coding programs and systems implementation as some of the factors to be considered. “The administrative part of it… you’re getting into a whole cycle of things that the Fire Department does not do.

“Problems come up in coding insurance companies and Medicare… you’re always chasing it, never in front of it,” Eimers said.

The commission has also considered the need to sign up with a billing clearing house, and estimated it would cost $100 to join with an additional 39 cents charged for each transaction. Follow-up on non-payment for invoices through a company such as Montana Health Care was estimated to cost eight percent of collections.

But at the March 25 meeting, Coffin maintained, “There would be absolutely no cost or expense [to charging third parties for EMS transport]. We probably have left on the table half a million dollars.”

Deer Harbor station

Concerns that the Deer Harbor Fire Station is sited in a residential area prompted the department to send out letters asking residents within a half-mile of the station consider selling or donating their land for another site for the station. In order to conform with other fire stations on the island, the site needs to be at least 100 by 100 square feet, Duke said.

Bob Conner has offered to sell a one-acre “splinter” piece that runs along the Deer Harbor road on the uphill side.

Connor has offered to sell his lot for $100,000 and prepare the site (removing about 3,000 yards of material) for an additional $25,000.

Duke said that there will be another meeting to discuss the logistics of the Connor site; “It has pros for the community – an established site in the community center – and cons for us; not the building but operations. It’s on a busier road.”

Objections to the current site include the overall size of the building and the esthetic appeal of the building as planned, but Duke noted that “a lot of people want it where it is currently sited.”

Bill Trogdon has worked on designs for the current site, Harris said, and the Deer Harbor Fire Station plans call for different ingress and egress. Harris pointed out that the permitting process has not yet begun for the station, and that land use is among the plans subject to review by the county. “The County dictates to us what we do; they may say we want you to do something completely different.”

Administrative needs

Administrative needs are being assessed due to Buddy Wright’s resignation as Battalion Chief/Training officer, said Harris.

Wright has not worked as paid staff for the Fire Department since his letter of resignation was submitted to the Fire Commissioners on March 11.

Wright’s employment contract stated that “The Battalion Chief shall give a minimum of ninety (90) days advance notice, in writing, unless the parties otherwise agree.”

Now with Wright gone as of March 11, the Department is struggling to keep up with the administrative and training duties that Wright oversaw.

Operations Lt. Chad Kimple has taken over the training duties, with Paramedic Patrick Shepler helping out, Harris said.

Chief Harris is assuming the administrative duties.

The primary need is for a webmaster to take over the department’s website, Harris said. The website had been instrumental in Wright’s revised training program for the department, which Wright has adapted from the King County EMS training program.

Wright was paid $6,965 each month in Sept and Oct, paid $6,583 in November and again in December and $7,500 for Jan and again for Feb, according to figures provided by the county auditor. Harris said in January of this year, “I would have paid a computer consultant over $30,000 just to put one year of training in an online format.”

The commissioners stated that going to bid for a formal webmaster would be the most cost-effective way to deal with the website. They approved $2,000 to act upon Steve Hussey’s proposal to set up the website on a system that’s more user-friendly than the one currently employed.

“We have the funds in advertising and training and we need to do this,” said Harris.

In response to the public’s call at the March 11 meeting that someone be at the front desk and that there be a back up to the voicemail phone menu, the Fire Department has asked their volunteers to man the front desk. Volunteers Jim Scheib and Carl Coburn are now undertaking those duties and they are being paid minimum wage, Harris said, “until we figure out a long-term solution.”

Apparatus and equipment

The Commissioners considered apparatus and equipment replacements, which Wright had been researching before his resignation. Coffin said, “As we step back and look at what we’re doing, the question we should ask is, ‘is this what we want to do?'”

Duke said that the debate was “cost vs. performance,” as the fire deparment strives to maintain its high insurance rating. In discussing the vacuum tenders, (which provide water at a fire scene), Duke said that the last test was about 15 years ago and that now two simultaneous fire test are required. “That would tax us, “Duke said.

“Our responsibility is to get the best material for our needs.”

Cross Training

Harris told the meeting on March 25 that, in discussions with the Commissioners since the last public meeting, “we heard loud and clear” the public’s disapproval of “arbitrarily excluding EMTs who don’t want to be firefighters.

“I felt we could change that situation.”

Harris proposed that the structure of cross-training be revised so that First Responders – introduced two years ago as a “bridge” to Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) – would continue, as would the EMTs, “and we’ll look closely at what we’ll want the emergency medical person to do at a fire scene so that the First Responder or EMT will have familiarity skills.”

No firefighting skills will be required of EMS volunteers, Harris said.

Public comment

Pierrette Guimond brought forward some information from the auditor’s office, including a yearly roster of department positions and salaries since 2004, and an audit of monthly reimbursements for department employees from September 2007 to February 2008.

Guimond said that previously commissioners’ meeting minutes were taken by the department administrative assistant or business manager, and that it was inappropriate for a commissioner’s wife to be acting as secretary at the district meetings.

“While I appreciate volunteers answering the telephone, it doesn’t address the problem [of administrative staffing]” Guimond said.

She told the commissioners, “As volunteers you need to do the best job with the people’s money.”

She urged the department to hold a mediated meeting, open to only a few citizens, where department volunteers could speak freely, “To discuss what has happened and how to move on,” Guimond said.

Duff Andrews brought up protocol issues, pointing out that no agenda for the March 25 meeting had been posted by that afternoon, and that before the commissioners can take action at a meeting, they have to post an agenda identifying that action may be taken on an item. Further, Andrews said, actions can only be taken in regular meetings, not work sessions such as the March 25 meeting.

Coffin replied, “Moving forward, it will be easy to clarify.”

“Protocol is important,” Andrews said.

Kathleen Smith questioned how much money had been spent on the existing website before Wright resigned his position. Harris said that he wasn’t able to break down the hours that Wright had worked on the site. When Smith asked if Wright had trained others in managing the site, she was told that community members had been asked to come forward, but none had.

Errol Speed asked about maintainance costs for the Deer Harbor Station and in the discussion that followed, Duke said that while utilities enter into the cost, “the bigger cost is maintainance of the building.”

Carol McCoy expressed concerns that the Eastsound station was not being maintained, and wondered what plans were to maintain a new Deer Harbor facility. She asked if a cleaning staff was maintained at the Eastsound station.

Harris said that he’d cut back on the $16,000 cleaning contract, that he was “a firm believer that people should clean up their own mess…the people that are here should be doing that.”

Shortly thereafter, the commissioners retired for an executive session and resumed the public meeting to announce that no decisions had been made.