Wednesday, January 15, 2014
OKANOGAN Volunteer firefighters are threatening to walk out if the city doesn’t reinstate a full-time chief’s position and rehire Gordon Hennigs for that post.
Firefighters delivered the ultimatum during the City Council’s Jan. 7 meeting, and also reiterated their request to meet with the appropriate council committee.
Hennigs was fired Dec. 10 by former Mayor Michael Blake.
Blake, who left office Dec. 31, refused to say why he let the chief go after 17 years on the job. Hennigs said he wasn’t told why he was let go.
First Assistant Chief Scott Duncan has been filling in as acting chief. During the Jan. 7 meeting, new Mayor Jon Culp appointed firefighter Christian Johnson as fire marshal until a chief can be appointed.
The fire crew packed the council chambers for the Dec. 17 meeting and again Jan. 7.
Johnson, speaking on behalf of the Okanogan Volunteer Fire Department, said it was “disheartening” that council members had not followed through on promises to meet with fire association leaders in the wake of Hennigs’ firing and a decision to cut the position to half time as a budget-balancing measure.
Culp said he’d met with individual firefighters and planned another meeting.
“I have told the fire folks I want to do a collaborative process,” he said.
Firefighter Budd Featherly said the fire crew wants the position to be full time and Hennigs to be reinstated.
If those conditions aren’t met in 60 days, “we will find it hard to continue services for the council,” he said.
Elizabeth Buchanan, a former firefighter, said that statement “should scare everyone in here. I’m so afraid of what that could do to our city.”
Hennigs’ wife, Patty, questioned whether the city had budgeted for someone to repair fire trucks and equipment, since her husband had done much of the work as part of his job, or if the city was prepared to reimburse Omak and Malott fire crews for responding to the city if the Okanogan firefighters walk out.
Having to call on another department also would increase response time from an estimated three minutes to at least 10 or 12 minutes, she said.
On Monday, Culp said he’s been assured by Fire District No. 3 that its firefighters will continue to answer calls in the city. The district’s Okanogan-based equipment is housed at the Okanogan Fire Hall and its Okanogan crew is the same as the city fire crew.
The district also has stations and firefighters in Omak and Malott.
During the Dec. 17 meeting, Councilman Ken Thompson had questioned how much fire insurance rates might rise because the chief’s position is going to half time. When no one answered, he said, “then I assume it won’t have much of an impact.”
Johnson, during the Jan. 7 meeting, said he’d done some research and learned residential insurance premiums are based on several factors, including city classification, state fire ratings, location, response time, firefighter training levels and other things, including the property’s condition and the policy holder’s credit rating.
Having a half-time chief likely would affect insurance ratings and costs, since response time would increase and training might suffer, he said.
For his own home, Johnson estimated a city rating change from the current 5 to a 6 would cost an additional $35.20 per year for $200,000 worth of coverage.
He said the fire crew voluntarily gives up time with family and often leave their jobs to respond at all hours of the day and night.
Johnson, who also is the city’s building official, said whenever the council has wanted to make changes to the airport or the Plex sports park, it has consulted the airport association or Friends of the Plex. That same courtesy should be extended to the firefighters.
Buchanan said firefighters train hard under a chief who has the ability to tell them to go into a burning building, and they do that willingly because they know the chief wouldn’t send them in if they weren’t properly trained.
“Why balance the budget on the back of our fire department?” she asked. “Why take the job away from a person these people trust with their lives?”
Patty Hennigs questioned the city’s motive in cutting back the position, which consisted of three-quarters time for the fire job and one-quarter time for animal and code enforcement.
“You guys have turned my stomach,” she said. “I hope you to God you find someone to take a 24/7 job for 20 hours’ pay.”
Most of the fire department comments came during a public comment session at start of the meeting, although Patty Hennigs spoke again during a comment period at meeting’s end. When no one from the council volunteered a response to her comments and questions, she pressed again.
“This is your turn to talk, not ours,” Thompson said.
Patty Hennigs again questioned how much it will cost the city for her husband’s unemployment benefits, equipment repairs and possible reimbursements to other departments, compared to the $40,200 it intends to save by cutting the position to half time.
“No one questions Gordon’s commitment, his qualifications or his dedication,” Thompson said. “I was surprised the budget committee took that route” to cut back the chief’s position.
But, he continued, the budget was written by Blake, department heads and the council budget committee, and the rest of the council trusted them to come up with the best budget possible to match expected revenue.
“I won’t tell the mayor how to run the city,” he said. “When they say this is the best way to distribute the funds, I feel compelled to follow it.”
He said Chief Hennigs “went above and beyond as fire chief. I respected and appreciated that.”
Concerning code enforcement and animal control, Culp said routine animal calls will go to someone else on the city staff. He said he might ask the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office about animal control for vicious dogs.
Sheriff Frank Rogers, contacted after the council meeting, said his office already responds to dangerous dog complaints in the city as part of the contract to provide police protection t here, but would find it “really hard” to deal with routine animal problems.
Something would have to be worked out if a dog were impounded, since he doesn’t have the staff to take care of a kennel.