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Communication issues plague the CK fire district

Central Kitsap Fire & Rescue Chief Scott Weninger and Board Chairman Dave Fergus are defending the move to drop minimum staffing requirements from 19 to 17 firefighters per shift following a full day last week in which no staff members worked out of Chico Fire Station No. 64.

But the topic of minimum staffing is still on the minds of many in the district, including firefighters.

And at a meeting of the CKFR board on Monday, Weninger suggested that the board, the administration and firefighters come together for an “economic summit” as a way of mending fences between the parties and to look for new ideas to the district’s economic woes.

Beginning Dec. 1, 2013, the district moved from having 19 to 17 firefighter/EMTs on duty during each of the three shifts per day. That move was approved by the board in November in order to reduce the overtime that the district was accumulating.

The district’s overtime cost last year was $886,730 because of the time-and-a-half paid to firefighters who were called in on overtime in order to reach the 19 minimum staffing level.

Weninger said the district has 75 career firefighters and 25 are assigned to a shift. But when some are out sick, on vacation or at training, staffing has been between 23 and 19. Since Dec.1, that minimum has been reduced to 17.

So on Jan. 8, instead of calling in firefighters on overtime, the Chico Station did not have its normal number of firefighters and was staffed only by available volunteers.

Ronny Smith, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2819, the union representing CKFR firefighters, said his concern is that the firefighters were never consulted before the board made the decision to reduce minimum staffing.

“If they’d come to us and asked us to be a part of the discussion, we would have been willing to look for creative solutions - possibly even taking a pay cut to keep all the stations open at full staffing,” said Smith. “But we were never asked or even told that the subject was being considered. We’re firefighters and protecting the residents of this district is our only goal. Many of us would have been willing to take a pay cut to make sure that all residents were fully protected, but we weren’t given that chance.”

Smith said he’s tried to approach the board to open up lines of communication but hasn’t gotten a response. Last week he asked for a one-on-one meeting with Fergus and in reply got an email asking that he and his fellow firefighters “work together” with the board to “hold everyone accountable to the core covenants  … honesty, teamwork, courtesy, camaraderie, trust, commitment, equality, respect…”

On Monday, Fergus said he is willing to discuss the minimum staffing with union representatives, but doubts that the decision will be reversed. He did not attend the board meeting, but spoke earlier by phone.

“We have to remember that the board is there to make policy,” said Fergus. “Earlier in 2013, the board set a policy that our expenditures have to equal our revenues. We also set policies that we would set aside funds to take care of our facilities and equipment, so that we don’t have rain coming through the ceiling at our stations. It’s up to the administration to decide how to accomplish those policies.”

Fergus said it was the chief who made the decision that a reduction in minimum staffing was needed and a reduction in overtime costs was the best way to reach a balanced budget.

“From the board’s point of view, we need to balance the budget and overtime clearly is the biggest item and the place where the cuts have to be made,” Fergus said. “We’ve been able to make it through losing $1 billion in revenues since 2010 without laying off one firefighter. We’ve allowed wages to increase through COLAs (cost of living adjustments) while things like fuel costs have risen dramatically.

“We have cut back on every discretionary item,” said Fergus. “No one has lost a job. Our only alternative is a reduction in overtime.”

Fergus said the idea of reducing minimum staffing wasn’t new.

“The issue has been a point of conversation for a long time,” he said. “It’s been an issue for long enough that the public has heard of it. The issue really centers on the budget and the need to reduce overtime in the district. That’s really what’s at the heart of this.

“Did the board speak to the union about the reduction before it happened? We may or may not have. I’m not sure we were required to.”

Fergus said he had discussed the reduction from 19 to 17 in minimum staff with the chief prior to the board’s vote. He said other options such as furlough days for administrative staff weren’t considered because the reduction in overtime was the only way to achieve the dollar amount needed to balance the budget.

“We’re operating on a skeleton (administrative) staff right now,” he said. “We have not been filling administrative positions as they have come open through attrition. In my opinion, we’ve already made those reductions.”

He said he thinks the public had many opportunities to comment on issues such as minimum staffing prior to the board taking action.

“As elected officials, we are chosen to make decisions on their behalf,” he said. “There had been enough deliberation among the board and the staff and I was quite comfortable to make that decision. The decision was not made in a vacuum.”

As for safety in the Chico area, Fergus said it hasn’t been compromised.

“If we back up and take a look, the station was not closed,” he said. “It was just operating with volunteers and no full-time firefighters. It’s only been two years that that station had full time firefighters anyway.”

Fergus said he had not received any complaints from Chico area residents but was aware that Chief Weninger had received a number of calls.

Fergus scoffed at the idea that the board is limiting input from the public or the firefighters on decisions it makes.

“There are some difficulties with communications in the district,” he said. “But the notion that we, as a board, don’t get input from the community is false. We talk to people in the community, at outside events and at other places than at board meetings. Personally, I hear a lot from residents of the district in one-on-one informal conversations. That’s how I get most of my information.”

He added, “The public is welcome to speak up at any point in the board meeting. I’m always open to input. But frankly, the best communication is often received in ‘offline’ conversations.”

Chief Weninger was asked to comment on the minimum staffing last week but was not available due to a scheduled visit by state auditors. He offered a district fact sheet on staffing levels which is available to view online at www.ckrf.org.

The idea of an economic summit was well-received by the board and is expected to be scheduled for later this month after participants are selected. Board member Dick West said he wanted to be in the group.

Earlier in the meeting, West said he had planned to resign from the board but decided not to because he was asked to stay on by Fergus and others. West was the only board member to vote against the reduction in minimum staffing.

“We are a lot better organization than what we’re doing to each other,” he said. “I’m absolutely appalled at the blogs and the posts and messages and signs that are out there. I have to drive by that sign everyday.”

West referred to a sign that was posted in Silverdale last week by a group calling itself the Kitsap Fire Watch. It stated that the district had its priorities backwards. Kitsap Fire Watch is a community-based group that monitors all fire districts in Kitsap County. No one from the group spoke up at the meeting to defend the sign.

Union president Smith was not at the meeting and later said that was due to staffing issues in the district. He said he would not take leave to attend the meeting because it would leave the district short of on-duty firefighters.

“The idea of the summit is a good one,” Smith said Tuesday. “To me this is the due diligence that was needed before any of this (staffing changes) happened. It’s a way to move forward. I’m just wondering why it took so long for them to get the message.”

He also said he hopes that community members will be included in the summit.

“This isn’t about the board, or the administration or the union,” he said. “It’s about the residents of the district and making sure they are getting the best service they can. The residents are our number one priority.”

Firefighter Steve Davidson spoke at the end of the meeting in favor of moving forward with improved communications.

“It sickens me to see whats’s going on right now,” he said. “The blame can be placed on all parties. I’m happy to see the summit and improvement in  the lines of communication.”

Also at the meeting Monday, the board approved spending $40,000 on 25 Windows-based tablets.

Each fire commissioner will get one and the others will be used in the fire vehicles and ambulances so that employees can immediately bill the responsible parties from the scene of the call.

Commissioner West said he wanted the cost of his tablet (approximately $900) taken out of his pay.

 

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