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Friday Harbor fire chief suspended, goes on medical leave; five firefighters resign, cite 'no confidence'
This version corrects the date of the car fire and date the photos were posted
Friday Harbor Fire Chief Vern Long was suspended for two days by Town Administrator King Fitch, after photos posted on SanJuanJournal.com showed a firefighter battling a car fire without proper apparatus.
Long was suspended without pay Aug. 16-17. He went on medical leave Aug. 18; Fitch said Long indicated at their disciplinary meeting that he had medical appointments scheduled.
In addition, four fire officers and a firefighter submitted a letter of no confidence in Long, and subsequently resigned. The letter was signed Aug. 12 by Lt. Chris Chesley, Lt. Daniel Frymire, Firefighter Peter Goddu and Capt. Jeremy Talbott; and on Aug. 13 by Capt. Robert Pauls. A copy of the letter was received by the town office Aug. 19.
Fitch said Long has been in regular contact with him during his absence, but has not indicated when he will be returning. The Journal left a message on Long's home telephone answering machine Wednesday.
In Long's absence, Assistant Fire Chief Tom Eades is serving as acting fire chief, Mayor Carrie Lacher said. Eades is a dispatcher from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., so District 3 Fire Chief Steve Marler and Assistant Chief Brad Creesy are supporting the town fire department's volunteer duty officer.
Lacher said she spoke to Long when he went on medical leave and "urged him to get better." She attended a Monday night drill and spoke to firefighters before they drilled on the new fire truck.
"They're shook up. They're concerned that the firefighters who left chose to express their concerns in this way," Lacher said. She said firefighters told her they believe Long is "an outstanding administrator."
Lacher said she also spoke with two of the firefighters who submitted the "no confidence" letter, and said their concerns went beyond how the car fire was handled.
"They had concerns and issues. There were other things they were concerned about."
Lacher, who as mayor has ultimate hire and fire authority but delegates much of that responsibility to the town administrator, said she is not looking for a new fire chief.
"We're still working that out," she said. "We still need to talk to Chief Long about those issues." She said "those issues" means Long's health issues.
On Aug. 10, SanJuanJournal.com posted a story and a series of photos of a car fire at the ferry landing that day. The photos show a firefighter with hose working to extinguish the fire; he is not wearing breathing apparatus, which Fitch said is standard procedure. In one photo, the firefighter is crouching next to the front bumper, spraying water under the car, as smoke billows out. In another photo, Long is standing behind the firefighter, holding the hose, not wearing gear.
Lacher said the firefighter was not disciplined.
Letter signers call for chief's removal
In their declaration of no confidence, the signers said they have "no confidence in the leadership, management, organization or training abilities" of Chief Long, and requested his "immediate removal and replacement."
"As volunteers, we contribute our time and effort to preserve and protect the health and property of others — a responsibility we undertake willingly but take seriously," they wrote. "The FHFD needs strong leadership from a chief and assistant chief who will promote, support and comply with standard guidelines and procedures; assess, utilize and improve the skills and abilities of its volunteers; and advance the competence and knowledge of all department members through training and education. The size of the department, small geographical area, limited calls and/or financial constraints are no excuses for requiring or expecting less than full commitment from any member of the department, including staff officers, nor are they reasons to disregard requests for training and assistance, or ignore generally accepted and statutorily required fire ground practices."
Long was hired as fire chief in 2006, succeeding Bob Low, who resigned to become county fire marshal. The fire chief's position is full-time. Long was previously a fire chief in Alaska and Nevada.
Lacher credited Long with "repairing" the relationship between the town and district fire departments. He helped oversee the celebration of the department's centennial. He's also a bargain finder: He bought a Jefferson County patrol car for use as his chief's car, for $2,000; and he bought a used fire engine from Oak Harbor for $4,500 to replace Engine 6.
But he took some heat for his purchase, approved 3-1 by the Town Council, of a new fire engine with compressed-air foam system for $580,000. Councilman Noel Monin, fire captain and maintenance supervisor for District 3, believed a less expensive fire engine could have been purchased. Fitch, Lacher and Long said the fire engine cost more because it needed to be modified to fit the bay in the fire station and needed to meet newer regulatory requirements, such as emissions standards and safety features.
Lacher called the current crisis a "dust up."
"It's to Vern's credit that he repaired the relationship with District 3 that Chief Marler was willing to cover for us and have our back," she said. Regarding potential merger of the administration of the town and district fire departments, she said, "The council started that discussion during our working retreats during the summer, and it's something District 3 is interested in exploring. The town fire department relies on volunteers, so there's a special kind of vulnerability. If a joint venture with District 3 means we all can have good coverage all of the time, that would be to everybody's advantage."