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Changes afoot at fire department

The hot topics around the Bainbridge Island Fire Department these days have less to do with suppression, more with organization.

An organization study under way promises to have long-term implications for the department – perhaps leading to elimination of the executive director position, and elevation of the operations chief to a largely administrative “fire chief” post.

“The operation of the fire department is changing significantly, (and) we’re trying to put the best practices in place,” said Glen Tyrrell, fire commissioner. “As the department becomes bigger, we want to have a system in place that allows us to grow, and not spend months going through what we’re going through now.”

The issues are being studied by an ad hoc committee that includes Tyrrell and fellow commissioners Doug Johnson and Jim Johnson; Executive Director Ken Guy and Fire Chief Jim Walkowski; and five firefighters. The group met this past Monday for the fourth in a series of free-wheeling sessions.

And while discussed in the theoretical sphere of flow charts and models, the issues have clear implications for current employees, and for the general taxpayer.

Under an organization chart in place since 1988, an executive director manages the department and answers to the three-person fire board. Guy, who succeeded Neil Good in 1996, is charged with developing policy, managing the budget and dealing with intergovernmental issues.

Answering to Guy is Chief Jim Walkowski, who in turn oversees the department’s 11 “career” firefighters and nearly 50 volunteers.

That model elevates public administration know-how over operations experience, and is not necessarily popular with the department rank and file.

In mulling the pros and cons of the current model, firefighters have cited a “strong negative emotional response” to having the fire chief report to a non-uniformed official. Having a director without a fire-service background, they say, “erodes the trust of members” and can lead to morale problems.

Some say the issue is a function of fire service culture itself.

“I think there’s always been an underlying tension about a non-fire-service person leading the organization,” said Tim Dahl, a volunteer fire lieutenant with the Bainbridge department and career firefighter with the city of Shoreline.

Dahl said that while it may appear to those outside the department as “organizational xenophobia,” the issue is one of leadership as well as management.

“Particularly in this organization, I think people crave leadership,” Dahl said. “I think Chief Walkowski has been able to pull people together and get things done.”

Walkoswki described fire departments as “paramilitary,” in the sense that members prefer unity of command. He characterized his working relationship with Guy as “very good,” and said any concerns by firefighters predate Guy and pertain to the model itself.

“My biggest interest right now is not who’s on top of the org-chart, but how we get our service delivery out there in the most effective way,” Walkowski said.

Guy said that whatever title is given to the person leading the department, they need skills in financial management, personnel issues and labor relations – more relevant to government agencies than fire service.

Whether change is imminent, or even desireable, is a question for the fire board to decide.

Two scenarios – having both the executive director and fire chief report directly to the board, or having the department merge with the city for a different chain of command still – have been rejected as undesirable or impractical.

That leaves commissioners to stick with the status quo, or move to a “traditional” model in which the department is led by a fire chief with administrative duties.

Because the chief would be taken out of the role of emergency “responder,” the department would have to hire a new operations chief to serve as second in command. And depending on the distribution of duties, some other firefighter positions could be reclassified, perhaps to more demanding and higher-paid positions.

The study is also looking at levels of service – the department’s ability to respond to emergency calls now and in the future – and how they fit within the department’s limited tax revenues.

“It would be nice to say, ‘here, chief – work it out,” Tyrrell said. “We don’t have that luxury.”

Echoed Doug Johnson: “We can’t come up with five new positions because it feels good. We have to show some benefit.”

The study could also have ramifications at the ballot box. Several citizens, following the process to gauge the tax implications, urged commissioners this week to expand the fire board to five members from the present three.

Such a change could be put to a public vote by resolution of commissioners, or through a petition by island citizens.

Committee members agreed that the idea may warrant discussion, but said it is outside the scope of the current study, and the issue was tabled indefinitely.

“Right now if we had three commissioners or five commissioners, it wouldn’t make any difference,” Capt. Dave Hannon said. “What we’re doing is from the head down.”

The committee will resume its study of department organization at 7 p.m. March 5 at the Madison Avenue fire hall. Several members said they hope at that time to start “drawing boxes” to come up with the optimal model.

Where the process will go from there is unclear, and commissioners said any change would have to meet the test of fiscal responsibility.

“I couldn’t imagine we’d have six meetings about this,” Tyrrell said. “But I’ve learned a lot about the positions and the responsibilities, and certainly the costs.”

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The Bainbridge Island Fire Department employs an executive director; an operations chief; six administrative staff members; and 11 unionized “career” firefighters. It relies on a cadre of nearly 50 active volunteers, many of them career firefighters who live on the island but are employed by other area departments.

Overseeing the department is a three-person elected fire board – Glen Tyrrell, Doug Johnson, and Jim Johnson.

In 2002, the department responded to 1,690 calls for medical services, 387 for fires, and 126 miscellaneous alarms. The operations and capital budget for 2003 is $3.9 million.

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