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Expected back Monday, Friday Harbor fire chief still on medical leave two days later

Friday Harbor Fire Chief Vern Long ... has been on medical leave since Aug. 18. He was expected to be back on the job Sept. 20, but two days later was still on leave. - Richard Walker / Aug. 10, 2010
Friday Harbor Fire Chief Vern Long ... has been on medical leave since Aug. 18. He was expected to be back on the job Sept. 20, but two days later was still on leave.
— image credit: Richard Walker / Aug. 10, 2010

Friday Harbor Town Fire Chief Vern Long was expected to be back on the job Sept. 20, but as of Sept. 22 was still out on medical leave.

Deputy Chief Tom Eades told The Journal last week that Long had told him he expected to return Sept. 20. Town Administrator King Fitch told the Town Council the same thing Sept. 16. But as of Sept. 22, the word in Town Hall was this: Chief Long was still out on medical leave.

Mayor Carrie Lacher, who has ultimate authority over personnel but delegates daily management to the town administrator, said Sept. 22 only that she knew Long was still out on medical leave and didn't know when he would return. Fitch is out of town at a conference; a message was left Sept. 22 on his cell phone.

Fitch suspended Long without pay Aug. 16-17 after photos posted on SanJuanJournal.com showed a firefighter battling a car fire without proper gear. Long went on medical leave Aug. 18.

(Firefighters also didn't wear SCBAs, or self-contained breathing apparatus, at a July 8 car fire in Friday Harbor; Eades said. In an earlier interview that "if the minimum standard says SCBAs should be worn, then SCBAs should have been worn.")

A week before he was suspended, four fire officers and a firefighter submitted a letter of no confidence in Long and resigned.

Three phone messages left on Long's home telephone answering machine since he was suspended had not been returned by Sept. 22.

Eades has been serving as acting fire chief in Long's absence; he is a 911 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.

For four hours a day, department volunteer Karen Marler — wife of the District 3 chief — is answering phones at the Friday Harbor Fire Station. The department has 25 volunteer firefighters and support personnel.

Long is the department's only salaried staff member, at $61,327 a year. Eades receives a small stipend. The assistant chief for training position, salaried at $30,000 a year, has been vacant since Frank Chaffee moved off-island.

All told, the department has a 2010 annual budget of about $350,000.

Eades said the law prevents him from discussing Long's health, but he did say that Long has been stressed by the suspension and the aftermath.

"He doesn't feel good about it. None of us do," Eades said. "It's been stressful for him and stressful across the board. It's been bad for everyone involved. Even those who resigned, I don't think they're particularly happy they left. It was a no-win situation."

Eades said he hopes the chief returns soon.

"I've told him that there are 25 people who support him and would like to see him come back," Eades said. He said Long is easy to work with.

"I'm able to work with his limitations and he's able to work with mine. We work well together. He and Chief Marler work extremely well together and they have done a lot to bring town and district firefighters back to working together."

Eades indicated that if Long has any limitations, it's that he may have been too casual and that firefighting habits that were the norm long ago have changed.

"He became a firefighter when I was 12 years old," Eades said. "But he's been chief of three departments, he's worked in the fire apparatus industry, he's been a cop. He's well-rounded and he's intelligent, and he's been in it a long time."

Despite Long's absence, Eades said the department is working well.

"Basically, my policy has been to pull it together, we're in it for the community," he said. "My folks are very motivated. We're down five people, four of them officers, and everyone recognizes the shape we're in. Our reaction time has somewhat gotten better, because our people are well aware we're short on staff and need to get people responding. It's like (firefighter) John Miller said, they're sleeping with their pagers."

Joined the department in 2006
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.

"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," Lacher said in an earlier interview. 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."

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