Fractured family

If you talk to members of Island County Fire District 2, they inevitably refer to the agency as a family. While most fire departments across the nation and even in the county are moving toward paid staff, the district’s “family” atmosphere seems to help keep it a vital force of volunteer firefighters.

But like any family, there are disagreements and rivalries. Right now the district is in the midst of a somewhat messy, complex divorce.

A dispute over plans to do away with one of the district’s two paid fire chief positions has illuminated a split between north and south divisions within the large department, as well as long-standing resentment toward the elected fire commissioners.

“There is a feeling of dissention among firefighters toward the commissioners,” Chief Mick Lamar said. “They do not feel like they’re always part of the decision-making process.”

Lamar and Marv Koorn have been the two long-time, part-time chiefs of the department, splitting the North Whidbey department into north and south districts. The City of Oak Harbor divides the two districts. Lamar and Koorn were both volunteer chiefs until about three years ago, when the commissioners decided to start paying them as employees.

Then at a meeting earlier this month, the fire commissioners made it clear that they plan to change this arrangement. Koorn, who recently retired from the county road department, will likely become the district’s single, full-time fire chief.

This caused quite a controversy within the volunteer fire department, particularly among those who served with Lamar in the north division. They feel allegiance to their chief and feel sorry that he’s being pushed out of his chief job.

At the same time, other firefighters from the south division defended the commissioners’ actions and were critical of the critics. Thus the rift.

But the uprising also highlighted some anger and animosity that exists between volunteers and the fire commissioners.

There is a concern among many firefighters and both chiefs that the commissioners have often exceeded the usual bounds of elected officials by meddling in district management and haven’t always been open to input from the firefighters themselves.

“The commissioners of this district have always been hands-on,” Koorn said. “Historically, they have dabbled in operations.”

Like a city council, the Fire District 2 commissioners are supposed to be policy makers and guardians of the budget. Bruce Carman, an 11-year fire commissioner and a retired volunteer firefighter, admits that the commissioner have been very “hand-on” in administration matters, but he says they’ve left “fire ground operations” — responding to calls — to the chiefs.

Carman said both he and Commissioner T.J. Lamont stop by the main fire office to do paperwork twice a week. The commissioners regularly go to firefighter conventions and one commissioner visited a fire engine manufacturer to pick out a fire engine.

That’s sort of like a city council member choosing an engine for the fire department.

Commissioner Ron Muzzall, however, has said he’s more inclined to let the chiefs run the departments without so much interference from the commissioners. Both chiefs have applaud him for that.

Yet Carman said the commissioners need to keep their hands in the operation or things won’t get done. He explained that the two chiefs each work part-time, but he said much of that work is done at night. Until Koorn retired recently, both men worked regular hours in jobs away from the district. Carman said they didn’t have the time to do the administrative work.

“The commissioners have had that role of administrators,” Carman said. “There’s good and bad in that. We’ve not had to go out and pay a large salary for a fire chief. ... We’ve helped out the taxpayers by volunteering quite a bit of that work.”

Lamar, however, publicly criticized the commissioners for “micro-managing” the district and said some of their involvement was more troublesome than helpful.

“I am operationally oriented,” Lamar said. “I am a firm believer that fire chiefs should be allowed to run the department. I bet you a dollar that my vision of what the elected officials should be doing is not the same as the board’s.”

According to Koorn, there is a long history that is aggravating the current situation. He said some commissioners have made arbitrary and poor decisions in the past, which may be in the backs of firefighters’ minds. He said a few years ago he was the one who was outspoken in his criticism of the commissioners.

In the end, this controversy may become the cure. Carman said the commissioners want to move toward hiring a single, full-time fire chief for the district so that they can became “quite a bit less hands on.” The commissioners, he said, have been moving away from being involved in the day-to-day activities of the department to an “overseeing role.”

If Koorn becomes the sole chief, Carman said the commissioners will have “no problem” in allowing him to act as chief administrator, under the guidance of the commissioners.

“Will the commissioners actually allow Marv to run the department?” Lamar said. “That will be the silver lining in the cloud.”

Koorn’s said his plans are sit down with all the officers in the department and discuss the organizational structure. He also wants to talk to the volunteers about what Lamar’s role will be in the future of the district.

If he’s chief, Koorn said the 80 or so volunteers will have a strong voice in how things are run.

“The firefighters are the heart and soul of the department,” he said. “It’s a family. Firefighters are a close knit group.”

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