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District fire officials: Town can't provide fire protection; Council may vote on interlocal agreement Nov. 9

San Juan County Fire District 3 officials say the Friday Harbor Fire Department doesn
San Juan County Fire District 3 officials say the Friday Harbor Fire Department doesn't have enough firefighters to provide fire protection services within the town limits. On Nov. 5, they will send a letter to Mayor Carrie Lacher offering that assessment and urging the Town Council to contract with the district for fire protection services.
— image credit: Jane K. Fox

UPDATE: The Friday Harbor Town Council will meet Nov. 9, 6 p.m. for "discussion of interlocal agreement with Fire District No. 3 for administrative, training and operational services for fire protection" within the town limits. Mayor Carrie Lacher said Town Council members indicated they may be ready to vote on the agreement that evening.

SanJuanJournal.com's earlier story on this issue:

San Juan County Fire District 3 officials say the Friday Harbor Fire Department doesn't have enough firefighters to provide fire protection services within the town limits.

On Friday, they will send a letter to Mayor Carrie Lacher offering that assessment and urging the Town Council to contract with the district for fire protection services.

Acting town Fire Chief Tom Eades agrees with the district's assessment. He said the town now has 12 qualified firefighters. Is that enough? "No. We need more. But we're not able to recruit because we don't know what's going to happen to the department."

In addition, there's a leadership void in the town department. Assistant Chief Frank Chaffee resigned and moved off-island in March. In August, four town fire officers and a firefighter resigned and joined District 3. Chief Vern Long was suspended in August, then went on two months' medical leave before resigning. Capt. Tony Smith, the duty officer, is on vacation. Eades, a 911 dispatcher for the county, said he is stepping down as acting chief at the end of the month. Calls to the town fire station are now automatically forwarded to Town Hall.

At Town Administrator King Fitch's request, the fire district has been pitching in and responding to calls within the town limits. But those responses have been done at district expense. With no agreement for reimbursement, commissioners say that constitutes a gift of public funds, which is illegal.

Assistant Chief Brad Creesy of District 3 said district firefighters responded to "nine or 10" calls in Friday Harbor in October. "They were calls we would not normally go to — an alarm, or a fuel spill."

Commissioners John Jensen and Albert Olson warned Wednesday that the district may not be able to continue providing fire protection services within town without compensation. Jensen took a harder line, saying the district had "no legal, moral or ethical responsibility" to respond to fire calls within the town limits at the expense of district taxpayers. But district firefighter Peter Goddu, a Friday Harbor attorney who was one of those who resigned from the town department in August, said to not respond to a fire would be "immoral."

Olson said the district would indeed respond to a structure fire within the town limits. But he said the goal of the tough talk was to get town officials to see the urgency in the need to sign an interlocal agreement. "The town is sitting on their hands doing nothing," he said.

What has district officials worried is that an interlocal agreement was proposed to town officials last month — council members had copies at their joint meeting with the fire commission Oct. 21 — but as of Nov. 3 commissioners say they hadn't heard anything of the town's intentions. Commissioners had requested approval of the agreement by Nov. 10. The agreement would ensure fire protection service for the town until consolidation of the two departments is decided.

The Friday Harbor Town Council's Nov. 4 meeting — today — will be continued to Nov. 9 "for the purpose of an update on Fire Department related issues." Mayor Lacher said she expects to put the interlocal agreement on the agenda for Nov. 18.

Town and district officials are discussing the efficiencies that would arise from having one fire department on the island. They met jointly on Sept. 16 and Oct. 21, and Lacher has said in an earlier interview, "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."

But district officials are getting panicky over the town's pace on the issue.

Lacher said the district has done an "admirable job" covering for the town department and said the district has "a legitimate concern" about being compensated for fire protection services. But she said she's trying to keep the process "transparent" to the public and give the council enough time to study the issue.

"The council is working through it as fast as they can. I don't feel like we're dragging our heels in any way," she said.

She said the district's "sense of urgency has not been communicated to me." (Commissioners said Wednesday they did not plan to attend the Town Council meeting the next day, and District Chief Steve Marler was off-island Thursday for a conference in Everett).

At the Sept. 16 meeting, consultant Joseph F. Quinn outlined the ways the town and district fire departments could come together:

— Consolidate the departments. The Town of Friday Harbor would contract with District 3 for fire protection services. The town would pay District 3 from the various funding sources that now fund the town fire department. (Town residents don't pay a tax levy for fire protection services; the department is funded by a mix of sales tax, property tax and other current fund revenue.)

— Establish a regional fire authority. A new political entity would oversee fire protection services on the island. The town and fire district would pay the fire authority for fire protection services; a fire authority board would be comprised of district and town representatives.

— Annex Friday Harbor into Fire District 3. Friday Harbor residents would pay the same property tax levy that other district residents do; funds currently allocated to the town fire department could be used for other needs, such as roads.

About the town fire department: The department's 2010 budget is $350,000. The department roster is comprised of 25 firefighters and support personnel. In the budget are two full-time paid positions — chief, and assistant chief for training, both of which are vacant. The department has one station, three engines, a medium rescue truck, the fire boat Confidence, the chief's car, the deputy chief's vehicle, and a duty officer's vehicle.

The department also owns a 1923 Cadillac fire engine purchased by the department in 1941 from the City of Mount Vernon for $128. The fully restored engine is now valued at more than $1 million.

About the district fire department: District 3 has a 2010 budget of $1.4 million. The department has six paid staff members and 35 volunteer firefighters. The department has six fire stations on San Juan Island, one station on Brown Island, and seven engines, two water tenders and two brush trucks. The department has a six-wheeled Gator with pump on Pearl Island, and is contracted by the state Department of Natural Resources to provide fire suppression on all non-ferry served islands.

District 3 residents pay a property tax levy of 41 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

Real benefit is improved fire protection service
Quinn, an attorney and consultant who has helped fire departments consolidate or merge for about 25 years, doubted there would be much financial savings from joining forces. The real benefit to all residents is improved fire protection service. "It's about being more efficient with what you have," he said. In his opinion, "San Juan Island doesn't need two fire departments."

Consolidation of the departments has long been a contentious issue. The town studied the issue in the 1990s, and determined there wouldn’t be enough savings to warrant consolidation. At the time, the town department was seen as more skilled in urban firefighting, the district department in rural firefighting.

During David Jones’ mayoralty (2006-09), a blue ribbon task force determined that there wasn’t enough benefit to the town to warrant consolidation.

But town and district fire officials worry about inconsistencies that they feel could be dangerous. Both departments have mutual aid agreements and have responded jointly to fires, the most famous being the May 2002 fire in downtown Friday Harbor. But the departments don’t train together regularly. Standard operating procedures are different. Bunker gear and tools are stored differently. Radios operate differently.

“The important thing is that they use the same procedures, that they talk the same talk, that they properly answer the alarm when it rings,” Marler said in an earlier interview.

In an earlier story, Commissioner Olson said safety is the primary issue. “Every year, we start a joint training program and it happens for just a little bit. I would like to see us fight that fire as one department."

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