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Fire, ferry heads discuss protection around terminal

To resolve a potentially life-threatening impasse over fire service around the Winslow terminal, Washington State Ferries sent its top man to the Bainbridge Fire Department last week to discuss a new contract between the agencies.

Ferry CEO Mike Thorne came to the island to hear Bainbridge Fire’s side of the issue, Chief Jim Walkowski said, and has promised a response within two weeks.

“He heard us. That’s what we wanted,” Walkowski said. “He didn’t say ‘that’s not going to happen’ on any of our points, but said he would get back to us.’”

At issue is the contract under which BIFD provides fire-protection services for WSF facilities, including the terminal, vessels that may be in port, and the Eagle Harbor maintenance yard.

Because WSF, as a state agency, is exempt from the property taxes that BIFD levies, it is required by law to work out a payment contract with the fire department.

In past years, BIFD has estimated the value of the WSF facilities, then charged an amount that would be the rough equivalent of the tax WSF would pay were it not exempt.

This year, though, the cash-strapped ferry system wanted another arrangement.

Initially, it offered to pay BIFD the same amount it was paying North Kitsap Fire and Rescue for the Kingston terminal – 5 cents per square foot, including the vehicle-holding area.

BIFD balked at that, pointing out that the Eagle Harbor Maintenance Facility is an old wooden building in which such high-hazard operations as welding are conducted, meaning the rate of payment should be higher.

“They don’t have any other facility in the system like that,” Walkowski said.

BIFD also wanted up-front reimbursement for the special training necessary to fight on-board fires.

In April, WSF responded. But rather than increase their offer, they substantially reduced it to three-and-one-half cents per square foot for the buildings and nothing for the vehicle-holding area – well below what it was paying for the Kingston facility.

WSF said the offer was in line with “standards” applied by the state Department of Transportation for all its various facilities throughout the state.

WSF said it would pay for shipboard-fire responses on a case-by-case basis – after the fact.

That offer, totalling $5,375 annually, prompted BIFD to dispatch a blistering letter, accusing WSF’s negotiators of acting in bad faith, and requesting a face-to-face meeting with Thorne, who Walkowski said was not familiar with the prior negotiations.

The proposal BIFD presented to Thorne asks for $18,300 for first-year training and $11,750 a year for training after that, 15 cents per foot for the maintenance facility and five cents per foot for the terminal and vehicle-holding area.

In all, BIFD is asking for $35,755 the first year and $29,205 annually thereafter.

Walkowski said the training would take place at the North Bend fire academy.

All department members would receive “awareness” level training, as many as 40 would receive higher-level “operations” training and eight to 12 would receive more advanced “technician” training.

Without adequate training, Walkowski said firefighters would be unable to respond to shipboard fires, which could create a life-threatening situation.

“We would make a field assessment of risk versus benefit, but without the training, lives could be lost,” he said.

WSF spokesperson Pat Patterson said that based on the meeting, the system was reviewing all of its firefighting contracts.

“We got a lot of good information at that meeting and we’re taking a look at it,” she said.

“We want to pay a fair price for the services we’re getting.”

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