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Fitch: Outside law firm investigating claims made about fire chief in 'no confidence' letter

The Town of Friday Harbor has hired a law firm to investigate claims made about Fire Chief Vern Long’s leadership by a firefighter and four officers who resigned in August. Patterson Buchanan of Seattle was hired last week and is expected to complete its investigation in two more weeks. Town Administrator King Fitch said the law firm
The Town of Friday Harbor has hired a law firm to investigate claims made about Fire Chief Vern Long’s leadership by a firefighter and four officers who resigned in August. Patterson Buchanan of Seattle was hired last week and is expected to complete its investigation in two more weeks. Town Administrator King Fitch said the law firm's work could cost between $5,000 and $15,000.
— image credit: Richard Walker / August 2010

The Town of Friday Harbor has hired a law firm to investigate claims made about Fire Chief Vern Long’s leadership by a firefighter and four officers who resigned in August.

Patterson Buchanan of Seattle was hired last week and is expected to complete its investigation in two more weeks. Town Administrator King Fitch said the law firm's work could cost between $5,000 and $15,000.

Long was suspended without pay Aug. 16-17 after published photos showed him and a firefighter not wearing proper gear at a car fire; he went on medical leave immediately after his suspension ended. He was expected to be back on the job Sept. 20, but was still out this week.

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

Several phone messages left on Long's home telephone answering machine since he was suspended had not been returned by Sept. 29.

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.

The town fire 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.

In an earlier interview, Eades said 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 at the time. "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.

In their resignation letter, Lt. Chris Chesley, Lt. Daniel Frymire, Firefighter Peter Goddu, Capt. Robert Pauls and Capt. Jeremy Talbott wrote that they have "no confidence in the leadership, management, organization or training abilities" of Chief Long, and requested his "immediate removal and replacement."

They later joined the District 3 fire department.

"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."

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.

Mayor Carrie 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."

— Notebook: The town Fire Department is using a command vehicle borrowed from District 3, since Engine 7 crashed into the town's command vehicle on July 18 during a fire call on the 600 block of Linder Street.

A firefighter driving the engine to the scene turned too sharply and hit the side of a Ford Explorer used by the duty officer. "The old car is not worth repairing," Town Administrator King Fitch said. "We were going to get rid of it because its transmission was going out. We were not going to repair it, but we need to repair Engine 7. The collision creased a couple of compartment doors."

The incident is considered an accident and no disciplinary action was taken, Fitch said.

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