Farewell letter from former Orcas Fire Chief

by Holly vanSchaick

I am writing to you first and foremost as a fond farewell. My time serving with the staff of Orcas Island Fire and Rescue since 2021 has been transformational for me, and I’d like to think I brought meaningful, positive change to OIFR as well. During my tenure at OIFR we accomplished many things from an administrative perspective:

1) Improved training compliance with DOH. When I arrived at OIFR, there was no ongoing training (OTEP) plan on file with WA DOH. This was very important to correct!

2) Created and executed a consistent stepwise process for recruiting, vetting, and interviewing volunteer and career candidates.

3) Negotiated the first-ever overtime cap on vacation usage in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

4) Addressed the multi-decade backlog of unsorted public records (and did so with grant money!).

5) Enrolled OIFR in the L&I FIIRE program which resulted in a decrease in our L&I fees, as well as receipt of $25,000 in FIIRE grant money last year.

6) Started a cooperative wildfire prevention program with WA DNR to help Orcas Island residents make their properties fire-safe.

7) For the first time ever, staffed the Deer Harbor resident quarters, which had been built but never used.

8) We had no unfair labor practices or grievances filed against OIFR by the Union in the time I have been in leadership at the department.

The list goes on from here, but that would become boring quickly. Suffice it to say that this has been a team effort, and I can confidently say I have never worked with a better team.

Unfortunately, I find myself needing to also correct some misinformation that is circulating once again.

The Islands’ Sounder reported that I had resigned. I did not resign. The truth is that continued employment at OIFR under a hostile working environment became untenable for me, and that is what led to a mutually agreed separation of employment. In negotiations through my attorney, I offered to stay on for a transition period through the busy summer months and the Commission declined that.

The professional fire service today is about 4% female. Early in my career, I had the honor, and challenge, of being the first professional female firefighter for the City of Sunnyside. I excelled in all aspects, including being the first (and only) woman to pass their extremely challenging physical agility test, and far exceeding probationary testing minimums. Despite – or perhaps, in retrospect, because of – my excellent performance, there were men on staff who routinely told me I didn’t belong there because I was a woman. These verbal assaults escalated to the point of yelling, and intimidation, and at one point to the point of bruises on my leg in the shape of a Captain’s handprint, twice, from being struck so hard. I found this behavior unacceptable, and finally, after passing my probationary testing with flying colors, I made a complaint. It had to stop. Two of the offenders were given unpaid leave as a result of their actions. I was chastised by a union official for having made a complaint. He told me that I should just expect such behavior as the first female professional firefighter there, and that I was in the wrong for making a complaint about it. That is the side of the fire service no one wants to hear about, and keeping it in the dark is only helping it thrive.

I am very disturbed now, in 2024, to see a man in this community using my brave professional history in an attempt to shame me. This type of abuse is far from rare in the fire service, and such attacks as I have just experienced this week are the reason so many women do not come forward and report. I will not stand and allow such a callow, cowardly attack to go unchallenged. His public attack on me is in keeping with the behaviors described in a recent article in FireRescue1 (https://www.firerescue1.com/harassment/are-assaults-harassment-and-gender-discrimination-still-prevalent-in-the-fire-service). I encourage you to read this evidence-based, current description of modern fire service challenges.

This same individual disparaged my defense of another firefighter in Anacortes. Again, I am proud that I had the strength of character to stand up for someone else in that situation. If you are interested in reading a well-researched story about that, please see https://redcanarycollective.org/magazine/holly-and-goliath/. I stood up for others in that situation, despite the pain it caused me. I would do it again. The shame in that situation does not belong to me.

And now, here we are at the end of my time on Orcas. I am heartsick to leave the amazing responders and auxiliary volunteers of OIFR. I wish there were a different future in front of us. We had gained great momentum in our positive culture, growing the department through shared goals, respectful communication, and clear expectations and boundaries.

It is my hope that the community will nurture the department and finally allow it to heal after decades of strife and disorganization. Orcas community, please know you have a precious gem of a fire department in your volunteers and career staff, and cherish it for the treasure that it is. I am honored to have served alongside these people, the best of the best.