District ponders blueprint for new fire chief

Wanted: one fire chief — job description not yet available.

Spurred by Fire Chief Mike Brown’s announcement he will step down sometime this year, Fire District 7 has started its search for a replacement.

Although finding a new chief is a relatively straightforward process — advertise for applicants, interview them, select one — the district’s Board of Commissioners isn’t sure how to get the ball rolling.

Some want to start the process by finding out what the district employees want, some want to hire a consultant before doing anything else and some want to try and do both at once.

The problem is, only one fire commissioner — Roger Wiley — was around the last time the district hired a new chief. Brown came on board in 1991 and, at this point, neither he nor Wiley can remember much about the process the district used.

Even if they did remember, Wiley pointed out, the district was a very different place in 1991.

“We didn’t have a chief built into the system on hand; someone we could bring up through the ranks,” he said.

Although no one has formally announced his intention to apply for the chief spot, the commissioners anticipate serious interest from the district’s various assistant chiefs, battalion chiefs and maybe even a few tenured officers as well.

The question then becomes, does the district advertise in-house first or hire a consultant to conduct a larger, nationwide search?

According to the fire commissioners, there are pros and cons to both op-tions.

Commissioner Dusty Wiley said he wanted to see what kind of in-house talent the district had first before launching a costly, broad-based search.

He believes the district, if it finds good chief material among its current staff, will be able to pare down the chief selection process considerably and save the cost of hiring a consultant.

Commissioner Darla Hartley, however, isn’t sure the commissioners — largely inexperienced in this type of undertaking — will be able to spot a future chief all on their own.

She said a consultant belongs in the process regardless of the breadth of local talent.

“If we’re going to do this, let’s do it as right as we can,” Hartley said. “ This is a top position.”

Consultants who specialize in recruiting fire chiefs are numerous, but not cheap. As part of an initial effort to test the current pool of available consulting firms, the district solicited proposals from three companies — two based in Oregon and one based in Seattle. All three had similar methods of advertising for applicants, screening candidates, conducting interviews and doing background checks.

The price tags for the consulting packages varied widely, though. The cheapest — $5,995 — came from a more-or-less one-man operation based in Newberg, Ore. The most expensive — $25,000, an amount based on a percentage of the chief’s starting salary — came from Seattle-based Waldron and Co., a large consulting firm with offices in five states.

Extra expenses, including travel and meal reimbursement, were not included in the package prices.

Although the commissioners are still divided on the value of hiring a consultant to oversee the process, all agree the district has to ensure it knows what it wants from its future before trying to find a leader to help it along that path. The commissioners agreed to spend the next week or so reviewing the district’s strategic planning documents, mission statement and the existing job description for fire chief in order to make sure everything reflected the district’s current goals. The materials will also be sent to the employees’ labor leadership to solicit their input as well.

Originally, a few commissioners considered the idea of polling the entire employee base, but that idea was scrapped because of feasibility issues.

“I’m not interested in 150 opinions,” said Commissioner Rick Metzger.

The consultants who submitted proposals all estimated the chief selection process would take between 120 and 160 days to complete. The commissioners hope to stick to that time frame regardless of whether or not they hire a consultant. Ideally, the district hopes to have a new chief lined up before next fall, although the final decision could come even earlier if the perfect candidate is found in-house.

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