Expanded fire district makes its first personnel choices

Published on Thu, Jul 26, 2001 by Jack Kintner

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Expanded fire district makes its first personnel choices

By Jack Kintner

The board of directors of the North Whatcom Fire and Rescue Services (NWFRS) took a major step toward consolidating the administrative operations of its three constituent fire districts Monday night by passing an initial staffing plan.

The board made only two changes to the plan: two assistant chief positions, one for operations and another for training and emergency medical services, were combined into one, and a position responsible for training was added which will report directly to the assistant chief.
District 13 fire chief David England described the plan as a guide to “managing and supervising everything we do in order to more effectively utilize employees, develop consistency in training and provide life safety for the citizens of northwest Whatcom County.” By approving it, the board instituted an interim staffing arrangement designed to lead toward a more permanent structure beginning January 1, 2002.

“All the board members and the chiefs have a commitment toward this period of reorganization, to make necessary adjustments and give some time to dealing with the inevitable rough spots along the way. We all want this to work and will try hard to do that,” said Rich Bosman of district 3, elected president of the board earlier in the evening.

Following England’s hour-long presentation of the plan, the board adjourned into executive session to consider personnel recommendations in the plan as interested staff and firefighters milled around outside. District 5 chief Mike Campbell and district 13 chief David England both were asked into the session at various times as the board deliberated.

Shortly before 11 p.m. the doors opened and the meeting was re-convened. Directors approved adoption of the initial staffing plan making England the new chief, Campbell the assistant chief and continuing other career firefighters and staff in their present roles. The meeting adjourned once the remaining business of budgeting and related matters was continued to their next meeting, set for Tuesday, July 31 at 7 p.m. in the district 3 facility in Lynden.

All current career employees of the three districts were retained but their responsibilities shift and their employer becomes NWFRS. Aside from England, the two career officers with the greatest changes in their assignments are Campbell, who was named assistant chief for operations and training, and district 13 fire captain Jim Rutherford, whose district 13 training duties were taken over by a newly created position responsible for training throughout the new area.

Under the new plan each district will now be staffed by a fire battalion led by a battalion chief. Battalion 1 serves district 13, battalion 2 serves district 3 and battalion 3 serves Point Roberts, district 5. District 3 is alone in continuing with the same chief as acting chief Bob Hamstra was named the new battalion chief. At Point Roberts, volunteer Bill Skinner was named battalion chief and in Blaine and district 13 the position is as yet unfilled. The new training supervisory position, also unfilled, was created as a fourth battalion chief position.

Point Roberts chief Mike Campbell was enthusiastic about the proposal. Along with district 13 fire captain Jim Rutherford, Campbell will also provide back-up in Point Roberts when Skinner, an airline pilot, is away.
When concern was raised about continuing 24/7 coverage in Point Roberts, Campbell said “Skinner is available now for that job, but we should obviously move quickly on hiring a career fire fighter for that position.” Campbell later pointed out that Point Roberts taxpayers now pay about half what people in the other districts do for fire coverage, to “have a fire engine just a phone call away. It’s $1.27 per thousand dollars assessed value in district 13, $1.32 in district 3, and only 76 cents on the Point. To keep costs down, we’ll either need to raise the price or get the kind of help this plan implements.”

Rutherford is the only career fire fighter who may, as firefighter Henry Hollander said in another context, “lose a bugle from his collar.” His position as captain will be downgraded to lieutenant once a chief for battalion one is hired. Rutherford is, however, very supportive of this new plan, saying “I’ll do anything I can do to further the effort behind creating the NWRFS and making it work. I’m all for it. Tonight we had a good start to something innovative that can provide good and constantly improving service while making more efficient use of tax money.”

The volunteers’ role in the new structure remain the same for the time being. The plan calls for implementation of a “Volunteer Management and Integration Plan” in three phases, meaning that by next June the 159 volunteers in the three districts, 29 of whom are officers, will all be supervised and trained in the same way. At this point the three merging districts differ most in terms of their internal organization and training. One aspect of this plan is to use volunteers to increase 24/7 staffing at as many firehouses as practical during this transition period.

As the long evening ended, England said, “A lot of eyes in the county are on us, hoping this works. I’ve served in places where it couldn’t have even been considered because of staff rivalries, but here we’re all working together.” .

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