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Fire, ferries narrow rift

Bainbridge Island’s fire department and the Washington State Ferries have worked out part of their smoldering dispute about the costs of providing fire protection to the island’s principal transportation link, agreeing on a new three-year contract covering the on-shore facilities.

But the parties have left for later the question of how to pay for specialized training to battle blazes aboard a vessel itself, without which, local firefighters would have little choice but to stand by and watch the boats burn.

“This is a good agreement as far as it goes,” said fire chief Jim Walkowski, “but I’m concerned about the shipboard firefighting aspects. We’ve made it clear to WSF that sitting back and watching the boats burn is not acceptable to us, because of the high risk of significant casualties.”

WSF’s offer for onshore firefighting services of $18,500 per year for three years, retroactive to July 2002, is a slight bump from the previous contract for $18,000.

The offer represents a sharp reversal from WSF’s position of last April, when the state took the position that it would pay only $5,375. That offer was based on a standard formula used by the state Department of Transportation; the position brought charges of bad-faith negotiating from the fire department.

A standard formula was inappropriate, Bainbridge fire officials said, because of the special risks involved in WSF property – the wooden boarding trestle, and especially the 60-year-old maintenance building, in which high-hazard activities like welding are conducted.

“That is a unique facility to the system, and it was troublesome for both sides to deal with it,” Walkowski said.

Ultimately, both sides agreed to a “risk adjustment” for the maintenance building.

The agreement went to the fire department board of directors last night for approval, which Walkowski expected.

“This is slightly above what we were paid in the past,” he said.

The agreement is required because WSF, as a state agency, does not pay property taxes to the fire district. State law requires that in lieu of taxes, its agencies work out contracts with the government service-provider.

Historically, the fire district has attempted to estimate the amount WSF would pay if it were subject to district property tax, and used that as the basis for a contract. But last year, WSF said it wanted standard agreements with fire districts in which it had terminals.

Still up for further discussion is the question of who should pay to train BIFD personnel to fight ship-board fires, training that Walkowski estimates will cost $30,000 initially, then roughly $20,000 a year thereafter.

“Our personnel are trained to fight fires on pleasure craft,” Walkowski said, “but not on large ships. Because the ferry is the only large ship that docks here – we don’t have cruise ships – we think WSF should pay for the training.”

The question has arisen this year, Walkowski said, because of relatively new training standards imposed by professional associations. Failure to adhere to those standards could subject the department to unacceptable liability in the event of injury to a firefighter, he said.

To date, Walkowski said, WSF has offered two alternatives, both unacceptable to the department.

One is to simply not respond, which is WSF’s agreement with the fire department in Sidney, British Columbia. The other is to bill WSF after the fact on a per-incident basis.

“That puts the cart before the horse,” said Walkowski, “because we have to train before we can do the suppression.”

One possibility is to look for state and federal grants, possibly related to anti-terrorism funding.

Another possibility is to arrange joint training with other Kitsap County fire departments, because the same problems exist at the Kingston, Bremerton and Southworth terminals.

As of now, Walkowski said, WSF does not have a training agreement with any American fire agency.

In an Oct. 6 letter to Walkowski, WSF head Mike Thorne said his agency would prefer a system-wide approach to the training problem, but added that “until that goal is realized, WSF will work with the ... various fire departments serving WSF terminals to address response training for shipboard fires, subject to financial and other resource limitations.”

Walkowski said he is encouraged by Thorne’s attentiveness to the problem, and anticipates further discussions, perhaps by the middle of November.

“He has made two trips over here personally to meet with us at the fire station,” Walkowski said. “He is hearing our concerns.”

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