SKFR officials want merger to proceed cautiously

South Kitsap Fire & Rescue Chief Wayne Senter released a more detailed memo this month explaining why his fire department feels a three-way merger between local fire departments should not be attempted all at once.

“When you’re trying to eat an elephant, you should do it one bite at a time,” Senter said, addressing the SKFR board of commissioners at its latest meeting June 11.

The memo was released after members of the other two departments considering merging into a regional fire authority known as West Sound Fire and Rescue — Bremerton Fire Department and Central Kitsap Fire & Rescue — balked at a similar announcement last month.

“Three weeks ago, we had a very exciting meeting,” Senter said, referring to the May 19 meeting of WSFR’s planning committee where SKFR officials said that they felt the next move should be Bremerton joining with the department of its choice first, rather than all three at the same time.

“Some folks heard that for the first time then,” Senter said, adding that there were some “emotional reactions to our decision,” and a “very lively discussion followed.”

SKFR Commissioner Dusty Wiley, who also was at the planning committee meeting, said his board was not expecting the announcement to be such a surprise, nor to be taken as an affront.

“We weren’t telling them what to do, just what made sense from our perspective,” Wiley said. “Some said all decisions should have been made at the meeting, but we have better communication than some and just move a little faster than some. We also assumed that they had read (what we had sent out) like everybody else.”

Senter said WSFR planning committee member Brad Gehring, a Bremerton City Council member, then requested that SKFR “put together a report on how and why we came to our decision to make the project smaller.”

Senter then prepared a five-page report called “Evaluation and New Direction for West Sound Fire and Rescue Based on SKFR’s Interests,” dated June 2.

In the report, Senter alludes to four things the Emergency Services Consulting inc. (ESCi) study (which recommended the merger two years ago) identified as critical to a successful merger process: Command, Communication, Control and Culture.

• In regard to Command, Senter said WSFR “possesses some failures. On more than one occasion, all elected officials unanimously agreed to a set of tasks with specific completion dates. These dates were moved several times because of (vacations, other department priorities) and various other barriers to completing the assigned tasks on-time were identified. We place no judgment on these reasons; in the end, we did not accomplish the work on time.

• In regard to Communications, “It is noteworthy that at several WSFR planning meetings, elected officials from other agencies complained about inadequate internal and external communications; collective external communications was adequate, but it is difficult to over communicate, and more could have been done in this area.”

• As far as Control, Senter said “the primary failure in this area was in not naming one person to be in charge. Control was shared and no one person was ever assigned to be responsible for forming the WSFR work plan... There was much discussion about naming a fire chief and charging that responsibility to one person; however, efforts to accomplish this were delayed for various reasons.”

• As far as Culture, Senter states that SKFR’s objective was to “take the best from each organization and capitalize on those strengths.” However, certain differences, such as CKFR using three-man engine teams versus SKFR and BFD’s two-person teams derailed that process. “Culturally, SKFR seems to have more examples of cooperation with BFD,” such as with agreements regarding cooperative incident responses and the Record Management System. “Conversely, every attempt for cooperation with CKFR has failed.”

Senter writes that “while there is some disappointment at not meeting our original goal all at once, we could meet the same ultimate goal by breaking the project into two phases.”

He goes on to describe BFD as “a natural to be one of the two agencies in the first phase of consolidation,” and that SKFR is eager and willing to complete the consolidation with BFD in a timely manner,” and will respect its decision to merge first with CKFR if that it the case.

In conclusion, Senter states that “It is unfortunate that some of our external partners feel surprised by our decision ...(and) we too were initially disappointed in facing what we believe to be a new reality. However, after thoughtful and deliberative discussion, (we) decided this course of action is the best utilization of our precious time, energy and money.”

The next WSFR planning committee meeting is scheduled for July 7, and Senter said he looks forward to discussing the matter further then.

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