Fire district cuts staff

After voters denied three straight requests for more tax dollars, South Kitsap Fire and Rescue Chief Wayne Senter announced on Thursday that two support staffers would be laid off to allow his district to hire the additional firefighters it has sorely needed for some time.

“This is the most difficult decision I have made in my 25-year fire career,” said Senter, addressing the SKFR Board of Commissioners. “We cannot keep up with the increased number of calls, and we must reorganize to improve our response times.”

Senter said after careful consideration, he was recommending the positions of fire inspector and public information officer, held by Craig Haugen and Lisa Kirkemo, be eliminated.

The layoffs would be effective immediately, he said, although both employees would be placed on paid administrative leave until March 31, and each would receive a severance package that includes up to $2,000 in job placement assistance.

Despite pleas from at least two audience members, including the president of the local union representing the support services employees, to delay the vote, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve Senter’s recommendation.

“It’s never easy to eliminate a position,” said Commissioner Darla Hartley. “But when our levy failed in November, it sent a clear message that we would have to (improve our response times) in another way.”

Before the last levy lid lift failure in November, former Chief Mike Brown said his department was fighting a losing battle against a steady increase in emergency calls. Brown said although calls were up 17 percent over the past four years, no additional firefighters had been hired, driving response times up dangerously high and forcing his department to depend heavily on nearby fire districts.

All four commissioners present Thursday — Commissioner Roger Wiley was absent — said those trends could not continue.

“My concern is that any further delay is not going to hold in check our dependence on other (fire) districts,” said Commissioner Richard Metzger, attending his last official board meeting after resigning from his post last year. “The way we do that is by putting more firefighters on the line. Our focus has to be on the 911 calls, and my vote tonight will reflect that position.”

With the layoffs Thursday, a total of three positions have been eliminated since Senter took over from retired Chief Brown, who stepped down Dec. 1.

Under Brown, two assistant fire chiefs — Senter and Gary Faucett — shared administrative duties. Under Senter, the roles have been combined into one position now called deputy chief, currently held by Faucett.

Senter said these cuts — 12 percent from support services staff and 16 percent from middle management — will allow the district to hire two additional firefighters/Emergency Medical Technicians by April 1.

This would raise the district’s minimum firefighter response staffing to 15, which Senter said would improve its response times, but not completely fulfill its staffing needs.

With approximately 9,000 emergency calls each year, Senter expects the district will eventually need to hire seven to nine additional firefighters, which would require the “support of its citizens” by approval of a levy lid lift.

Before placing another measure on the ballot, however, Senter said he will evaluate the effectiveness of the recent re-organization.

Brown had projected that by this year or next, after the district already reduced travel and training costs, eliminated volunteer meetings and took on duties such as office cleaning and mail delivery, Senter would have to cut staff or programs.

Prior to the layoffs, the district cut funding to the Firefighters In Training program (FIT), a $60,000 savings.

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