Town, District should try joint fire administration | Editorial

Friday Harbor Fire Chief Vern Long has been on medical leave since Aug. 18. He reportedly told town officials he expected to be back on the job Sept. 20, but as of this posting is still out. Meanwhile, the town has hired a Seattle law firm to investigate concerns about Long’s leadership, raised in a letter of no confidence filed by a firefighter and four fire officers who resigned.

We sincerely hope the chief is well. He is a dedicated public servant with a long career in fire protection. He has 25 firefighters who look forward to his return.

We don’t know what Long’s status is with the town and whether the issues that led to his suspension, before he went on medical leave, can be resolved. But those issues point to the need for changes in how the department is managed.

If Long does not return, the Town Council should contract with District 3 for joint administration of both departments. In Long’s absence, District 3 Fire Chief Steve Marler and District 3 Assistant Chief Brad Creesy have been on call to assist the town’s volunteer duty officer. Town and district firefighters have had two joint training sessions. And town and district officials are meeting to discuss efficiencies that might result from having one fire department on the island.

The void in leadership at the town fire station provides an opportunity to test a consolidated administration — a consolidation that could yield immediate results in how equipment is managed and how firefighters train.

Town and district officials met jointly on Sept. 16 and expect to meet again this month. At the Sept. 16 meeting, consultant Joseph F. Quinn outlined the ways the 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.

While the financial savings may be minor, the real benefit is improved fire protection service.

Quinn, an attorney and consultant who has helped fire departments consolidate or merge for about 25 years, said, “It’s about being more efficient with what you have,” he said.

Indeed. 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, but the departments don’t train together regularly, standard operating procedures are different, bunker gear and tools are stored differently, even their 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.

Mayor Carrie Lacher said, “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.”

Quinn gave the same recommendation he’s given to so many other fire departments considering consolidation: Move slowly. Start training together, and build from there.

The council and district should start with a contract for joint management of the town and district fire departments.

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