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Friday Harbor, District 3 reach accord on fire protection pact

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It's not consolidation -- at least not yet -- as the Town of Friday Harbor puts its fire department on the shelf and agrees ontract out for fire protection over the next five months.
— image credit: Jane Fox

It's a far cry from consolidation, but it could be a big step in that direction.

On Thursday, the Friday Harbor Town Council put its stamp of approval on a binding agreement that calls for the town to pay San Juan Island Fire Department for five months of fire protection within the town's boundaries.

Under the agreement, approved in a 3-0 decision by the Town Council, Chief Steve Marler of San Juan Island Fire Department, also know as District 3, will serve as town fire chief for the duration of the contract. Town Councilman Felix Menjivar was absent from Thursday's meeting and councilman Noel Monin, a District 3 employee, recused himself from discussion of the pending agreement and the vote.

Mayor Carrie Lacher praised the amount of work accomplished by town and District 3 negotiators in hammering out details of the contract. She noted the agreement will allow the town to maintain ownership of its equipment and to keep the identity, as well as the internal structure, of its fire department in tact.

Still, Lacher noted there's a level of "trust" that will needed for the new relationship to work. Both entities, she said, will be able to see if they can "blend" and work together over the next five months, she said.

"We're trusting them to do a good job," Lacher said. "This is our opportunity to find out if we like what happens."

The contract calls for the town to pay $8,000 a month to District 3 for fire protection, the training of firefighters assigned to the town, and for maintenance of the town's firefighting equipment, including fire engines, trucks, equipment and the fire boat Confidence. The town, Marler added, will retain ownership of all its firefighting assets.

If approved by the District 3 Commission, Marler said the agreement would take effect immediately. The district's three commissioners were slated to the vote on the contract Sunday. Marler said he expects the commission will approve the contract, even if the vote is not unanimous. (The vote took place after the Journal's holiday deadline).

Under the agreement, town firefighters would need to apply with the district and be certified as a district employment. Those who chose not to seek district employment would have an option to be placed on an "inactive roster" with the town department, town Administrator King Fitch said. They would still be able to participate in non-firefighting activities, such as safety demonstrations at the elementary school, answering phones or pancake breakfasts.

According to Marler, the district intends to make best use of firefighters and equipment by assigning each to stations that make sense, regardless of prior department affiliations. He noted there are town firefighters that live far from town limits while some firefighters employed by the district live closer to town. Assignments would be done on a case-by-case basis, he added.

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 that time, the town department was seen as more skilled in urban firefighting, the district department in rural areas.

But times have changed.

The town has been without a fire chief since the departure of Vern Long, who resigned in mid-October after a two-day suspension in mid-August, followed by two months on medical leave. Long was suspended by town Administrator King Fitch after published photos showed a firefighter without proper gear battling a car fire, under the chief's supervision. On the heels of Long's suspension, four fire officers and a firefighter submitted a letter of no confidence in the chief and resigned.

Since August, District 3 has responded to fire-related within the town boundaries. The department, Marler said, runs the risk, however, of being sanctioned by state auditors should it continue to use its resources -- funded by District 3 taxpayers -- outside its boundaries, and without compensation, indefinitely.

"We couldn't cover the town for free forever," Marler said.

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