Friday Harbor Town Council, Fire District 3 ironing out interlocal agreement for fire protection; council vote Nov. 18

San Juan Fire District Commissioner Bob Jarman and Friday Harbor Mayor Carrie Lacher visit after the Town Council
San Juan Fire District Commissioner Bob Jarman and Friday Harbor Mayor Carrie Lacher visit after the Town Council's Nov. 9 meeting. Town and district officials are ironing out an interlocal agreement for interim leadership, training and fire response services within the town limits.
— image credit: Richard Walker

Friday Harbor and Fire District 3 officials are working out changes in an interlocal agreement with District 3 for "interim leadership, training and incident response services" within the town limits.

Council and district officials discussed contract changes at a council meeting Nov. 9, which had been continued from last week. Commissioners are scheduled to meet Nov. 10 at 3 p.m. The Town Council is scheduled to vote on the agreement Nov. 18.

The interim agreement would ensure fire protection service for the town until consolidation of the two departments is decided. 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.

Nov. 9, both sides called for calm. Citing frustration with the town's pace on the interlocal agreement, Fire District Commissioner Albert Olson last week accused town officials of "sitting on their hands doing nothing" and Commissioner John Jensen said the district had "no legal, moral or ethical responsibility" to respond to fire calls within the town limits.

Mayor Carrie Lacher advised both sides to put strong feelings aside and focus on providing the best fire protection service for all islanders, saying emotions are "one of the issues that have been dogging us for years."

Fire District Commissioner Bob Jarman agreed, saying town and district would benefit from a consolidated fire department. "I want to see us move forward," he said. "If you take the emotions out, it would be a no-brainer."

District Fire Chief Steve Marler said he "didn't want to write this letter," which he delivered earlier in the day outlining the district's concerns about the town's ability to provide fire protection services within the town limits. He said commissioners "wanted to make clear to the Town Council how time-critical they believed (the agreement) was."

Fire District officials say the Friday Harbor Fire Department doesn't have enough firefighters to provide fire protection services within the town limits. They have been providing fire protection assistance since August, when town Fire Chief Vern Long was suspended and then went on medical leave; he resigned in October.

In addition, the town's training officer position is vacant, four town fire officers and a firefighter resigned and joined District 3, the duty officer is on vacation, and Acting Chief Tom Eades is retiring at the end of the month. Calls to the town fire station are now automatically forwarded to Town Hall.

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."

Fitch said district firefighters responded to 17 of 23 calls in town since August; Assistant Chief Brad Creesy of District 3 said district firefighters responded to "nine or 10" calls in October alone. "They were calls we would not normally go to — an alarm, or a fuel spill."

Among the contract issues to be ironed out:

— Payment for services. The district had asked for $7,500 a month; Town Administrator King Fitch came up with $5,000 a month, based on the district budget divided by the number of fire stations. Jarman said Fitch's figure is "in the middle" of the low and high figures he came up with.

— Council members want town firefighters to retain their rank and standing as town firefighters while under Chief Marler's supervision, until consolidation is resolved.

— District officials didn't want responsibility for the fireboat Confidence, because of questions regarding who would be liable for any work-related injuries. Former Friday Harbor mayor Bill La Porte, long an advocate for a separate town fire department, said he was saddened by the need for an interlocal agreement, but "I understand the necessity." But he said he could support the interlocal agreement only if the fireboat is included. He said the town would continue all town equipment under district management.

"Without the fireboat, we would have less service than we have today," he said. "Change that one thing, and I will go long with what you're doing."

Councilman Steve Hushebeck said the draft interlocal agreement is "workable" and addresses some of the town's immediate needs. Councilman Felix Menjivar said of the agreement, "It's temporary and we can change it." He urged his colleagues to "not get bogged down" by details.

'The important thing is that they talk the same talk'
Town and district fire officials have long been concerned about inconsistencies in their departments 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."

But among firefighters, where sense of loyalty runs strong, consolidation has always been a sensitive subject. The town studied the issue in the 1990s and determined there wouldn’t be enough financial 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 Mayor David Jones’ administration (2006-09), a blue ribbon task force studied the issue and determined that there wasn’t enough benefit to the town to warrant consolidation.

At the Sept. 16 meeting, consultant Joseph F. Quinn advised both departments to move slowly. Start training together, and build from there. If the relationship develops to the point where something needs to be formalized, address it then. “Rome wasn't built in a day,” he said. “And the island's been here a long time.”

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.

The town fire department's 2010 budget is $350,000. The department has a full-time, salaried chief and assistant chief for training; those positions are vacant. The department has one station, three engines, a medium rescue truck, the fireboat 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.

The district fire department has a 2010 budget of $1.4 million; district residents pay a property tax levy of 41 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation. 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.

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."

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