By MARGIE DOYLE
On March 11, Fire Commissioners Clyde Duke and Jim Coffin heard from a standing-room only crowd of Fire Department members, former members, former commissioners and the pubic in general during the public comment session of the commissioners’ regular meeting.
Following the presentation of two petitions, one that had been circulated among the public and the other among Fire Department volunteers, the resignation of William “Buddy” Wright as Battalion Chief/Training Officer was read into the record.
Citing “the personal attack against me and my family,” Wright resigned his position as of March 11; he had been officially promoted to that position as of Jan. 15. The announcement of his $90,000 annual salary prompted concerns among the public, as evidenced by the petitions and the attendance of some 50 islanders at the commissioners’ meeting, which, according to Commissioner Jim Coffin and meeting minutes, is usually sparsely-attended.
Duke and Coffin discussed tabling the matter of Wright’s resignation until Commissioner Harvey Olsan is in attendance. No action was taken. Wright will remain as a Fire Department volunteer.
Although Duke announced at the beginning of the meeting that the commissioners “welcomed public comment… but would not answer questions or engage in debate,” two hours ensued in which the public, Fire Department members and the commissioners expressed their views and debated the matters brought up.
Battalion Chief position
Pam Harney, the Fire Department’s former administrative assistant/office manager for 13 years, read her letter to the commissioners into the record, as she submitted two petitions; one addressed the salary and benefit package provided the Battalion Chief/Training officer, and the other requested the process of selection of Battalion Chief be reopened. Harney estimates there were 125 signers of copies of the petition she presented. Kathleen Speed also presented copies of the signed petition, noting that about 450 people had signed them and added that more copies of the signed petition were still circulating.
Harney stated that the Commissioners had been derelict in their responsibilities for failure to: open the selection process for Battalion Chief to all qualified candidates; to properly evaluate the credentials of the individual selected as Battalion Chief; to check the education, experience, credentials and leadership of all qualified individuals to determine the best qualified for the position; to select someone with the requisite EMS background, and to do a salary survey within districts of similar size, manpower and budgets.
Harney said that the salary and benefits offered the Battalion chief “far exceed those that would be warranted by the education, experience and credentials of the individual to whom this was offered.”
Harney also stated that “something is very wrong” when Fire Department volunteers said they feared “intimidation or retribution” if they signed the petitions.
Harney stated that the positions which she held in the Fire Department were “advertised and opened to district and community members,” refuting Coffin’s statement that the district hiring process has not been opened in the past to anyone other than the Fire Chief.
Harney said that she hoped the Commissioners would revisit the selection of Battalion Chief, evaluating the contract provisions to assure the community… that you are following your mandate to be fiscally responsible.”
Harney’s letter was followed by one from Jim Sheib, asking which model for emergency service is best for the island. Shieb said that one-third of the U.S. 80 million population is expected to retire in the next 15 years, and that in looking for future Fire Department administrators, the island can’t afford to bring in someone who must both acquire affordable housing and “learn the ropes” at the Fire Department. Scheib described the current Orcas Fire Department as “a lean organization.”
John Erly, a former fire commissioner, said that the public is upset about the position, specifically the salary and benefits, rather than the individual who’d been hired to that position.
Speed also said that the campaign was not a personal attack on Wright, but that the commissioners had been voted in “to listen to us. This is about how you’re spending our money.”
Pierrette Guimond noted that on the Cemetery Board of which she is a Commissioner, the position to take minutes is advertised at $6,000 a year. She added, “And you guys didn’t advertise for a $90,000 position. It has nothing to do with the individual, it has to do with the commissioners.”
Carol McCoy questioned why the Battalion Chief hiring had not been a public process. After responding that Wright had been what the Commissioners sought for the position, Duke also said that the matter had been discussed for about a year and half in Commission meetings.
At that point, the letter of resignation from Wright was read into the record, in which Wright said that “the happiness of my family must take precedence” and that he was resigning as of March 11, 2008.
Volunteer firefighter Ian Wareham said that the wage at which the Battalion Chief had been hired is more than the combined income of many couples. “You can’t hire a guy at journeyman wages who is at apprentice level and not create animosity.”
John Evans, former volunteer firefighter and County Commissioner, said, “Commissioners make mistakes. I think you owe Buddy an apology: you put him in an impossible situation.” Evans noted that the Sheriff and the County Administrator are the only county employees who make as much as the Battalion Chief.
Further, Evans said, “As an elected board you are legally responsible to advertise for the position – you’re spending the public’s money.”
Although Coffin challenged Evans’ assertion, he then said, “It doesn’t matter because we’ll be considering a policy change later in the meeting.”
Former Fire District Commissioner Duff Andrews expressed concern that the different budgets for capital improvements and operations were getting mixed up. “Administrative costs have gone up $250,000 per year; the scale has really gotten out of balance.
“In 2014, when we all go to the polls, it will be a different ball game. It’s as simple as that,” Andrews said.
Bob Phalan, department volunteer and former commissioner said, “If the levy isn’t approved – and it looks like we can’t wait until 2014 – the service we’re building will be very difficult to maintain. The $90,000 [Battalion Chief salary] is a torpedo in this community.
“I’m glad people are here… and hope that you do listen.”
Andrews added “Listen and act.”
A March 11 letter signed by Mike Stolmeier, Katy Cardinale, Bob Phalan, Judith Schliebus and Markus Naugle, members of the Emergency Medical Services Long-Range Planning Committee (EMS LRPC), stated that, in February of 2007, they were “particularly concerned, after a trial period of two years, that the new cross-training requirements will dramatically reduce the recruitment of potentially valuable volunteers” and “for the sake of the viability and continuity of the volunteer aspect of the EMS program…the demand of cross-training be scrapped.” The letter also stated that this opinion was the unanimous recommendation of the EMS LRPC committee a year ago.
While Coffin said that the letter and statement were “accepted with thanks” he said that he also was a member of the committee, and that it was “inappropriate” and described the group signing the letter as “a private caucus.” Coffin added that he planned to reconvene the committee “in the relatively near future….this is not productive.”
Later in the meeting, Coffin asked that the three committees involved in the strategic plan and the long range planning committee (Medical services, firefighting services, and communication) be combined when the committee reconvenes.
Department volunteer Kari Schuh said that, over a year ago, she had written a letter expressing her concerns regarding the loss of volunteers to Coffin and Wright and had never heard a reply from them. Schuh said that the issues surrounding cross-training were presented a year ago to Coffin. “We seriously need to examine the way volunteers get treated as to their training and their disposability,” she said.
Firefighter/EMT Volunteers Association President Toby Brown said that after interviewing roughly half its members, he found that the volunteers felt there was poor leadership, poor communication, and poor recruitment within the Department. “As volunteers, we’re all here because we want to make te community and Fire Dpeartment better.”
Brown described cross-training as “a tax to the volunteer’s motivation,” and noted a division between paid and volunteer members of the Fire Department.
Evans spoke to the declining number of volunteers, saying the number of firefighters had never been large, but that, at Station 7 (Olga-Doe Bay) it was never as small as it is currently. “You should be concerned about the number of EMTs who are trained that aren’t serving, You’re running the volunteer [numbers] too far down,” Evans said.
Garth Eimers, formerly head of EMS services at the Fire Department, said that while there are standards in state regulations , “nothing says how many people you need” in responding to EMS calls. He added, “The scope of practice for EMTs will expand in the next three years, with five different protocols coming down the pike which will all increase the training burden on EMTs.”
Andrews said, “There is no formula, whatever the demographics, but leadership and communication are what it all boils down to for a successful department.”
The role of the Department’s Administrative Assistant, Chad Kimple, was also brought up in the context of taking minutes for the Commissioners’ meetings and staffing the front desk. Several people commented that they had come to the Eastsound station and found no one there. Chief Harris said that he was the legal district administrator and that at times he had made the decision that “It was more important for [Kimple] to be out on call than at the desk.”
Others complained that the phone system routes callers to multiple extensions, all of which are inaccessible. Former department volunteer Marty Graves said, “People aren’t getting somebody [when they call]. You’re going from human volunteers to machines and budget policies.”
Julie Remington identified herself as “a former cross-trained member who did resign because of retaliation. There’s still that bully mentality that hasn’t been addressed. It saddens me to hear the same problems that affected me haven’t been addressed.”
The next scheduled meeting of the Fire Commission is March 25. It is expected that Olsan will be in attendance at that meeting.
According to Wright’s contract, distributed at the March 11 meeting, “The Battalion Chief shall give a minimum of 90 days advance notice, in writing, unless the parties otherwise agree.”