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Group critiques CK Fire staffing decision

January 16th, 2014 by Rachel Anne Seymour
One of Kitsap Fire Watch's signs is catching attention along Silverdale Way north of Newberry Hill Road. The group disagrees with Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue's decision to reduce the minimum number of firefighters needed per shift. Photo by Rachel Anne Seymour / Kitsap Sun

One of Kitsap Fire Watch’s signs is catching attention along Silverdale Way north of Newberry Hill Road. The group disagrees with Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue’s decision to reduce the minimum number of firefighters needed per shift. Photo by Rachel Anne Seymour / Kitsap Sun

Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue is under scrutiny from a self-described grassroots organization.

Kitsap Fire Watch, started by Ronny Smith as well as several union and community members, emerged online, followed by eye-catching yellow signs near Chico. Smith is vice president of IAFF Local 2819.

The group is voicing concerns about Kitsap County’s fire districts, specifically CK Fire and Rescue.

KFW has about a dozen administrators for its website, according to Smith, who said the group members are not trying to be anonymous. The site does not list any administrators, organizers or members, and posts are not credited.

Smith is checking with KFW contributors to see if they would like to be publicly named. Some members might not have expected to be placed in the public light, Smith said.

The group formed and quickly grew after the CK fire commission approved a staff reduction without public comment in a 4-1 vote during the Nov. 12 meeting.

Each station is covered by three 24/7 shifts. Twenty-five firefighters are assigned to each shift.

The minimum number of firefighters needed districtwide per shift was reduced from 19 to 17. Based on how staffing is prioritized throughout the district stations, if fewer than 19 firefighters are available per shift, Station 64 in Chico will not be staffed with career firefighters. Volunteers will remain assigned to the station when available, according to CK Fire.

On Jan. 8, Station 64 was not staffed with career volunteers, relying on volunteers.

“Station 64 is still staffed with volunteers at this time and responding to calls,” Ileana LiMarzi said Thursday. LiMarzi is the CK Fire public information officer.

The district will continue to respond to calls in Station 64’s response area, according to a fact sheet released by the district.

Smith argues that volunteers often work day jobs and are not available to staff stations 24/7.

No firefighters were laid off as a result of the reduction, which the district said was necessary to reduce increasing overtime costs.

In 2013, the district spent $886,730 on overtime, $177,261 more than budgeted. In 2011, the district spent $625,113 on overtime.

Smith took issue with how quickly the reduction took place and without public discussion at the meeting. Smith and many residents learned about the potential reduction for the first time when they read the Nov. 12 agenda Friday before the meeting.

“The community in Chico wasn’t allowed input,” Smith said.

He attended the Nov. 14 meeting, which was a “packed house” and had standing room only.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion on how quickly or not the decision happened,” said David Fergus, CK fire commission chair.

Fergus had “quite a few conversations” with people in and outside the fire department about the decision, and feels the best decision was made, he said.

After public comments were not allowed on the reduction vote, Smith wanted to provide another avenue for community members to speak out. KFW was formed.

Smith and KFW also take issue with the fact the reduction idea was not shared publicly before being placed on the board’s agenda item.

At the end of last summer, the district finalized its strategic plan, but staff reductions were never mentioned, according to Smith. Every part of the district had a say in the plan, including the union and Fire Chief Scott Weninger, Smith added.

Since the KFW signs have appeared in the community, residents have started to talk and ask the fire commissioners about the situation.

Commissioner Dick West said he has been approached.

During the Jan. 13 meeting he said he was “appalled” by the signs as well as the “blogs.”

West said he had planned to resign, vacating his position this summer, but decided to wait and see if talks and communication improve.

West dissented from voting on the staffing reduction.

The district is continuing “business as usual,” according LiMarzi.

In the meantime, Smith is hoping community members will step up to take over KFW.

“I want to let it go and let people who aren’t associated with the fire department take it,” he said. “We have our own political goals as a union, but the community needs a voice.”

Friends, family and interested community members have started contacting the group and providing input, Smith said.

According to Smith, the group’s current goals are to provide community input and gather community interest. “Right now the group wants the commissioners to rethink their priorities,” he said.

According to Smith, the reduction affects response times and the safety of the firefighters. Although firefighters have sick leave, Smith is concerned they will go to work regardless, worried that staffing numbers will be too low without them.

“They have created a culture where guys are going to come in, because they don’t want the station to close,” Smith said.

Pleas to foster better communication between the district and the union are rising.

“It sickens me what’s going on,” Steve Davison said. Davison, a CK Fire and Rescue Volunteer, spoke publicly at the end of the Jan. 13 CK fire commissioner meeting.

Davison said blame could be placed on both parties and suggested a communications summit be held.

“We need to bury our differences,” Davison said. “We need to get along and serve the public, because that’s what we are here to do — serve the public.”

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