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Navy plans firefighter cuts

Two national imperatives are clashing at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and firefighters are caught in the crossfire.

Navy officials feel that the fire station is overstaffed and they plan to eliminate 12 firefighting positions in order to reallocate funds within the Navy.

On the other hand, firefighters and a U.S. Congressman think that it’s wrongheaded to dismiss people trained to deal with hazardous materials and weapons of mass destruction in the midst of the War on Terror.

“If anything, in the future we are going to need additional firefighting services at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station,” Congressman Rick Larsen said. He also emphasized the department’s potentially vital role in regional hazardous materials response.

Capt. Stephen Black, base commanding officer, said the Navy has been working to become more efficient, cut redundancies and lower costs since a directive came down from top government levels in 1998. On Whidbey, that has resulted in privatization of water, sewer and even housing.

Most recently, officials at Navy Region Northwest have analyzed firefighting operations at bases in the region and decided that staffing cuts should be made.

NAS Whidbey will be hit the hardest. Chief John Arruda, the federal fire chief for Navy Region Northwest, is the man responsible for the analysis. He said 24 firefighting positions will be eliminated in the entire region, with 12 coming from Whidbey. That’s one engine crew, which is made up of nine firefighters and two captains — plus a fire inspector position, according to Navy Northwest Public Affairs Officer Karen Sellers.

“We need to coordinate our assets, resources and capabilities,” Arruda said. “Whidbey Island has redundant capabilities.”

The Ault Field base currently has two crash trucks, an engine and a ladder truck — also called a telesquirt — which are each staffed by the appropriately number of firefighters. There’s also an engine and engine company at the Seaplane Base.

Arruda said the base doesn’t need three engine companies — the ladder truck and the two engine crews — so he’s eliminating the crew that runs the ladder truck. He said the truck itself will stay and the remaining firefighters will cross-train on the ladder truck.

One of the biggest concerns firefighters say they have about the cuts is their ability to meet mutual aid agreements. The five fire departments on Whidbey, which includes the Navy’s fed eral fire department, have agreements to aid each other. That might mean helping out in serious incidents or providing backup in a district if an entire department is busy with calls.

The island’s fire departments and other authorities also rely on the Navy’s fire department to deal with hazardous material spillage or the unleashing of a weapon of mass destruction — whether it’s ricin poison or a dirty bomb.

Navy firefighters responded this year, for example, to a suspected chemical leak at the hospital and a suspicious white substance at Wal-Mart, both of which were false alarms. They also regularly respond to car crashes and fires outside the base on a mutual aid basis.

While Arruda said such mutual responses will be possible even with the staffing cuts — in the event there’s no conflicting emergency on base — local firefighters say he’s not being realistic.

“I really don’t see us being able to do mutual aid with outside fire departments,” Capt. Jason Hebb, a firefighter supervisor at the base, said. “It’s going to be inside the fence and inside the fence only.”

Navy Firefighter Chris Hitechew said the department must follow OSHA and other regulations on how many people can respond to a scene and how many must stay behind to man the department, which hampers responses outside of the base.

In fact, Hebb and Hitechew said a staffing cut could even decrease “the level of service” within the base. “The general theory that management has is that there won’t be two incidents happening at the same time,” Hebb said. “But if you look at the response book, it happens all the time.”

Ray Merrill, battalion chief for the Oak Harbor Fire Department, also agrees that the staffing cutbacks at the base fire department will decrease or eliminate the federal firefighters’ ability to work with the other departments on the island. Without the Navy firefighters, Merrill said the fire departments of the island will likely have to create their own haz-mat teams “at extreme expense.”

“We have mutual aid agreements,” he said, “to assist each other because we know we can’t do it all ourselves.”

Yet Capt. Black emphasizes that the purpose of the base, including the base firefighters, is to defend the country, not benefit one specific community. While he said it’s important to have a good relationship with the community — and help out when possible — it’s not the military’s primary mission.

“(The federal fire department’s) function here on the base is to provide services on the base,” he said. “But this won’t necessary preclude us from doing mutual aid.”

Black said he has complete faith in the analysis of the federal firefighting services in the Northwest Region, which he said was done “primarily by professional firefighters.” Yet he said the regional command originally wanted to eliminate even more positions on Whidbey, but he said he “worked with regional counterparts to make sure the analysis was correct.”

In essence, Black said he agrees that there are “duplicated services,” meaning too many firefighters working at the base.

“We can’t afford to provide duplicative services, redundant services,” he said, “if we’re going to be able to build the Navy of the future.”

Like Black, Arruda said the Navy is working to become as efficient and cost-effective as possible in order to re-capitalize within the budget. That means buying more new ships and planes without asking the taxpayers for more money. The directive from top Navy officials, according to Sellers, is to cut the budget though efficiencies and put the savings into re-capitalization.

Cutting firefighting positions, Arruda said, will save money without putting any lives in jeopardy.

“This is the most effective, clear path that we can take,” Arruda said. “I feel very comfortable with it from a professional standpoint.”

Yet Erik Anderson, a base firefighter and union steward for the International Association of Fire Fighters, said decreasing the number of people who know how to respond to terrorist attacks or other types of mass calamities seems at odds with directives from Homeland Security, Congress and even common sense.

Anderson points out that Whidbey could face the risk of terrorism because of the base, its proximity to the Canadian border and its accessibility by water. Also, he said it’s a good idea to have hazardous materials teams in the area, even if Whidbey isn’t ultimately a target.

According to Anderson, all the firefighters at the base have the highest level of qualifications to deal with weapons of mass destruction.

The department, for example, has a state-of-the-art, self-contained decontamination shelter that can be set up anywhere to safely wash chemical, biological or even radioactive materials off of people. They also have equipment to test for chemical and biological agents, such as the plague, ricin, anthrax and botox.

“Our job has expanded a lot since 9/11,” Hitechew said.

Arruda, however, said the “emergency management departments in the region” are working on a terrorism response plan, though he didn’t have any details about it.

The base firefighters also say they’re confused about what the department will look like after the cuts. Right now they are short seven people and two others are leaving over the weekend. Hebb and Hitechew said that they are fully staffed at 50 people.

According to Arruda, the department is currently staffed at 49 people and the cuts will leave them with 37 firefighters. He points out that many of the jobs eliminated will be temporary or term positions. Temporary workers, he said, can be fired at will. Term firefighters have a contract to work for a certain length of time, not to exceed a year. Arruda said they knew the end was coming. With upcoming retirements, he said only six “career” firefighters will actually lose their jobs. They will all be eligible for vacant positions in the region.

The cuts will be staggered, he said, with a anticipated completion date of Jan. 31, 2005.

Capt. Black said he sympathizes with the firefighters’ concerns, but in the end he feels it’s the right decision.

“The process isn’t new,” he said, “but it can be difficult.”

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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