Fire district commissioner Stan Riffle overcame initial resistance from fellow commissioners to gain unanimous approval of a pilot program to increase coverage on weekdays.
“Let’s make a decision tonight,” Riffle said at the June 13 fire district meeting. “We’re coming into high season, and I think it’s time to try this program. This is what the taxpayers expected with the levy. Be it not perfect, let’s go ahead with it, revisit it each month, and we’ll see how things are going.”
Proposed by fire chief Nick Kiniski, the program would extend the successful weekend sleeper program to weekdays.
Volunteers would be paid a stipend to stay at the fire station for a ten-hour shift from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. These are the hours when traditionally the department has struggled with poor response to emergencies as many volunteers are at work.
“I’ve been looking at our budget, and I feel we could implement this program,” Kiniski said. “There are going to be some bugs but it’s my suggestion we try it.” Kiniski, a licensed paramedic, said that with an additional volunteer able to drive the ambulance at the fire hall or on call in Point Roberts, he would be able to guarantee a response to a medical emergency and transport to the hospital in Bellingham on weekdays. He is estimating that it would cost under $20,800 in stipends to implement the program. “We’d be under budget for what we’ve budgeted for volunteer pay,” he said.
Commissioner David Gellatly was reluctant to approve the program without additional information. “Talk to the crews,” he told Kiniski. “If they don’t buy in we don’t have anything.” He specifically questioned the proposed $40 stipend for a firefighter to be at the hall if he is not qualified to transport. “What’s the point of having the firefighter if he can’t transport?” Gellatly said.
Kiniski expressed confidence there would be volunteers who would take the shifts. Two weeks later he reported that all shifts had been filled during that period.
Gellatly also questioned costs, and asked for regular reporting, which Kiniski agreed to provide weekly.
In other business, commissioners continued their ongoing discussion about the chain of command and department standard operating procedures. During a discussion of the role of assistant chief Chris Carleton, the board and the fire chief butted heads over who’s running the fire department.
Kiniski said Carleton, who lives and works in Bellingham, was not an appropriate choice for assistant chief, though a very valuable training officer.
“He’s definitely an asset. He is a very good teacher. But he does not respond to calls,” Kiniski said.
Commissioner Bill Meursing was adamant Carleton remain in the assistant chief’s position. “I was extremely glad he was on board here,” Meursing said, referring to when Kiniski was in school to become a paramedic. “He should stay assistant chief.”
Kiniski expressed frustration with commissioners interfering with how he runs the department.
“This comes down to ‘I’m the chief here,’” he said. “You guys make it very tough for me. I’m getting directives from commissioners. If you aren’t happy with me I’ll step down and you can ask Chief Carleton to take the position.”
Gellatly said it needed to be clear that department operations were the chief’s job, not the commissioners. “No one commissioner can direct the chief to do anything,” he said. “If it’s happening, it shouldn’t happen. We don’t have unilateral authority.”
Carleton’s position was another issue, he said. “I don’t see the benefit of having an individual in the chain of command who’s not here. There’s no need to have that person sitting in the chain of command between the captains and the chief,” he said. “If you want to create a training position I have no issue with that.”
Riffle suggested an assistant chief who could replace the chief when he was not in town was needed.
Ultimately, Gellatly said, the question of Carleton’s position in the department was Kiniski’s responsibility.
“The chief needs to present us with a chain of command that works for him with positions and names beside them,” he said. “We’re depending on you to run the fire department. Run it.”
Commissioners directed Kiniski to begin documenting his work to gain a better understanding of his position and what it entails and to develop a chain of command. Commissioners will continue the discussion at their regular meeting, which has been rescheduled for 7 p.m. on Wednesday, July 18 at the Benson Road fire station.