District 3 volunteers don’t want change, they want out

Published on Thu, Feb 13, 2003 by R. Schwarz Kopf

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District 3 volunteers don’t want change, they want out

By R. Schwarz Kopf

It was a packed house at last week’s North Whatcom Fire Rescue Service (NWFRS) board meeting in Lynden, and many volunteers were in attendance to say one thing: District 3 volunteers want their district out of the relationship now.

Volunteers: “We want out”
About two months ago, district 3 volunteers began voicing concerns with the NWFRS and stated they want out of the organization unless “significant progress” is made. The NWFRS, comprised of districts 3, 5 and 13, was formed in an effort to cut costs and response times.
“I don’t know. They just want out, totally, immediately,” District 3 Commissioner Roger Hawley said, when asked what the volunteers want. “We made some mistakes when we started and we’ve acknowledged that.”

During the summer of 2001, the districts began planning an inter-local agreement, which officially went into effect on January 1, 2002, and will expire on December 31, 2004. District Chief Jim Rutherford, of districts 3 and 13, said this agreement is like a test-run for the three districts before they actually come together as one organization. “This is like an engagement before the marriage,” he said, noting the engagement has hit a few bumps.

The NWFRS has experienced several personnel issues over the last year, including the administrative leave of fire chief Mike Campbell. Also, several division chiefs have filed resignations or were let go, causing vacancies in top positions. Rutherford,
originally from district 13, has covered these vacancies in districts 3 and 5. However, a new chief, Nick Kiniski, has recently been appointed as the district 5 chief, effective March 1. The board also appointed an interim fire administrator, Dave Crossen, to work on the infrastructure of the organization.

In response to the volunteers’ concerns, district 3 commissioners passed a resolution stating the district would pull out of the NWFRS when the inter-local agreement expires, if “significant progress” hasn’t been made. But district 3 volunteer Greg Wolf said the commissioners had changed that resolution. “Originally, the resolution stated the volunteers want out of North Whatcom as soon as possible,” he said. “Hawley agreed that if the volunteers aren’t happy, he’ll vote to get us out.”

The volunteers don’t want significant change anymore, Wolf said, they just want out of the NWFRS. “We’re looking to get out. The basic thing is we really don’t have any confidence in our board members, or the board members of 13 and 5,” he said. “Financially, we’re not sound. We’ve been promised things would get better and volunteers would get attention, but they haven’t.”

Wolf said the volunteers expressed concerns to Mike Campbell, prior to his leave, and that Campbell told the volunteers not to worry. “Volunteers want to be made to feel like they’re doing something,” Wolf said. “We’re there to serve the public and we have to be provided with good resources to do that.”

According to Wolf, most of the concerns the volunteers have deal with equipment, clothing and expenses. “This (the NWRFS) was supposed to be a savings to the community, but it hasn’t been,” he said. “We (volunteers) haven’t seen anything at the station level as far as spending. There is a ton of spending in other areas.”

For example, Wolf said, the Laurel station needs a new ambulance, but the board decided to purchase brush rigs in an attempt to create revenue. “This should be of concern to the taxpayers. They are moving money out of the area and out of the state. Also, they told us no one would lose their job, and then they fired two people. Then they give raises when they claim they’re in financial straights,” he said. “We’ve compiled a list of ways to save money that will be presented to the board. It’s between $90,000 and $140,000.”

The board called a special meeting on January 21 to address the concerns of the volunteers and voted to set up a committee consisting of Interim Fire Administrator Crossen, Commissioner Hawley, and a district 3 volunteer chosen by the volunteers themselves.

But Wolf said the volunteers are not interested in this committee, unless the board passes a resolution stating district 3 pulls out of NWFRS as soon as possible. Until they get volunteers out, Wolf said, there’s not much they can do. “We’ve tried everything we can. There’s a total unity among firefighters. We’re going to continue to put a resolution in front of them to get out of North Whatcom.”

Administration: Change, problems part of process

“All three districts have been through many changes,” Crossen said, noting the NWFRS is still in its infancy stage. “But working for the citizens is a long term commitment.”
“Certainly there are problems,” he said, which include understanding the procedures and job descriptions, capital shortfall and dealing with change. “But it’s like starting a business. You start with debt first.”

Another problem is that firefighters don’t like change, Crossen said. “We are creatures of habit. We rely on things being secure.”

The intended goals of the organization, he said, are to use resources more effectively and efficiently, do more with less and merge into one agency by January 1, 2005. His vision for this merge consists of one fire chief administrator, three district chiefs, two clerical support personnel and one administrative assistant.

According to Crossen, districts 3, 5, and 13 are currently three organizations with their own staffs. When and if the three districts merge after the inter-local agreement expires, they will become one true agency, working as one staff. “You get into trouble when responsibilities get blurred,” he said.

The real issue to be addressed, Crossen said, is the efficiency and effectiveness of the NWFRS. “I think it has to work,” he said about the organization. “I think the taxpayer wants more bang for the buck and this is the way to
do it.”

Meeting: Questions, comments directed to board
At last week’s NWFRS meeting at the Lynden station, the board allowed for a public comment time, but stated any questions directed to the board would not be answered and the public should not be offended.

“That’s normal procedure,” Commissioner Hawley said about not taking questions. “It’s a lot easier to listen and think about it and respond later.”

Several people addressed the board, however some of them stated they had nothing more to say because their questions would not be answered. Dean Whitney, the pre-NWFRS district 3 fire chief, said he also had a few questions, but instead he spoke about districts 13 and 3. “They were strong entities and now three years later, they’re both in a big financial bind,” he said. “What’s it going to take to get us out of this? The board took an oath of office and it should look at that oath and get things on the right track.”

Former NWFRS assistant chief Bob Hamstra inquired about his termination, and also that of Barb Wallace, the volunteer coordinator. Hamstra, who had been district 3 assistant chief, and Wallace, received a termination notice on January 26, however four days later they received a notice regarding a pre-termination hearing.

“Why, if we were terminated on the 26th, did we get pre-termination on the 30th?” Hamstra, a 24-year employee, asked. “Are we still employed?”

The board, after several minutes, came to an agreement that both Wallace and Hamstra are still on the books and being paid, until a decision is made at the pre-termination hearing. The hearing has been set for February 20 at 7 p.m. at the Lynden station. Both Hamstra and Wallace will be allowed to present information, however no comments will be allowed from the public.

The terminations, Crossen said, were made for efficiency

District 13 meets tonight at 7 p.m. at the Birch Bay station. The next NWFRS superboard meeting will be at the Point Roberts station on March 6 at 7 p.m.

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