Orcas Interim Division Chief plans a bad idea

The Fire District Commissioners should not authorize an interim contract to hire the Fire/Medics to assume the duties of Assistant Fire Chief. The interim contract, proposed to start Aug. 1, would organize the Fire/Medics as three Division Chiefs to undertake the Assistant Chief’s duties.

There are several reasons for this position.

The first is a need for continuity and coherence between the Board and the Department.

While this community couldn’t be prouder of the Fire Department Staff and Volunteers, the Board of Commissioners has operated in fits and starts since the beginning of this year: Start with making official the Assistant Battalion Chief/Training Officer’s position, at a salary of $90,000, plus benefits. Stop with the Asst. Chief resigning after public and department protests over the salary awarded and experience in that position.

Start with drafting an employment policy. Stop when the Fire/Medics come forward with their proposal. Start with an Administrative Assessment shake-up, stalled while the Fire/Medics negotiate their contract.

Start with a proposal to bill insurance companies and Medicare for ambulance services. Stop when it appears the public opposes it. Start again when the Strategic Review Committee promotes it. Stop again when Commissioners find no enthusiasm for it.

Start the 2005 Strategic Plan Review with no clear agenda; also stalled with no action taken or report issued.

And while the Division Chief proposal advanced by the Fire/Medics – Valerie Harris, Mik Preysz and Patrick Shepler at several recent meetings has its merits, a second argument relates to the discrepancy between the terms “Chief” and “Division.”

If the Department is to be divided, then back-up for when the Division Chiefs aren’t on duty needs to be clarified. If, for example, Shepler or Preysz monitor the operation of equipment during their “normal” Duty Shift, what if an operations need occurs after that Division becomes the responsibility of Val Harris, as proposed in the Division Chief plan? Does the situation go unaddressed until Harris can see to it on her Duty Shift, or on her 14-hours proposed extra, “Division Chief,” shift? Who makes the judgment call and who assumes responsibility when divisions are, of necessity, crossed over?

When the Commissioners announced that they had formalized the Assistant Chief position in January, Chief Harris stated that the Asst. Chief had “helped heal the divisions within the department,” that had resulted from having a Fire Chief and an EMS Chief. So what merit is there in dividing the Department again?

A third argument relates to the need for an accurate job description for every member of the department now, and an overall assessment of needs for future hiring. .It appears from statements made by the Fire/Medics that they already do many of the tasks labelled in the different “divisions.”

In the near future, wouldn’t it be a good idea for the Fire/Medics to complete a Time-Study analysis, taking five minutes each hour to chronicle what they have done that hour? It doesn’t have to be sophisticated to be accurate, and would be a good exercise to provide information to the Commissioners as they study the proposal.

Chief Mike Harris has said often in recent months that, upon his hiring in 2005, he wanted and was looking for an Assistant Chief. Upon that person’s resignation in March, the Fire Department paid staff and volunteers have labored under the duties the former Assistant Chief had taken on – training, the website and administrative duties.

Now the website has been revamped, and the Board had been working on developing an employment policy, administrative needs assessment, and the Strategic Plan Review and looking at increasing the number of commissioners. That all appears to have stopped cold when the Fire/Medics, seeing a vacancy at the same time that their three-year contract negotiations were coming up, offered their proposal.

The last two arguments are time and money.

With one meeting, on July 22, scheduled before the Aug. 1 start date of an interim contract, enormous pressure is created to know the financial numbers and see if they pencil out. The board has said that they don’t have those figures yet, but will present them to the public in the future. Further, the proposal calls for a fourth paramedic to be added into the structure, and for the interim, for that position to be job-shared by two paramedics.

Five Assistant Chiefs – that’s a pretty hot kitchen.

And with fire season now, unfortunately, in full swing, and Fire Department members and staff going to Eastern Washington to fight fires, this is not a good time to be wood-shedding a profound change to the structure of the Orcas Island Fire Department.

To rubber-stamp an interim contract, without a clear understanding of the financial basis and job descriptions of that contract, is fool-hardy.

If the Fire/Medics proposal is to be seriously considered, it will take time and hard work to arrive at final contract. The Fire/Medics union contract expires Dec. 31. The Department will need that time to give thoughtful consideration to what that contract will entail.

In the meantime, if the Board would work on the hiring policy, the administrative needs assessment, the unfinished Strategic Review, and maybe even a time-study, they’d be in a much better position to weigh the benefits of a one-person Assistant Chief, or a three- or four- or five-person (if there is to be a fourth paramedic brought into the equation) Division Chief system, or another alternative.

The Commissioners should take a good long look at the issues before them – and us.