Commissioners, volunteers clash at Onalaska fire department

Thursday, November 23, 2017 at 12:14 pm
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Lewis County Fire District 1 Commissioners, left to right, Jeff Lee, Chair Rich Bainbridge and Bill Kassel

Updated

By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter

CHEHALIS – A contentious emergency meeting of Onalaska fire department leaders after the firing of their chief saw roughly one-third of the volunteers quit days earlier ended with a two-to-one vote to appoint a new person interim chief.

Lewis County Fire District 1 Board of Commissioners Chair Rich Bainbridge opened the Tuesday evening gathering inside the garage of the station by telling those in attendance of the need to fill a personnel gap and reassure the public the level of service isn’t diminished.

“Is this going to affect our staff here?” Bainbridge said. “Yes, it is going to be more work. We have qualified staff here to carry on.”

The chair of the three-member board said that just the night before at a meeting of fire commissioners from around the county, other fire districts expressed their support and willingness to help out. He reminded the crowd of existing mutual aid agreements.

Not everyone was as optimistic as Bainbridge.

Now-former Capt. Randy Tobler called out: “You have zero firefighters right now, you know that?”

The all-volunteer district that protects the area around Onalaska did have 24 members, according to district secretary Linda Patraca.

Last Thursday night when the commissioners voted after an executive session to dismiss volunteer Chief Andrew Martin, six other volunteers either turned in their gear or submitted letters of resignation, Patraca said.

Midway through Tuesday evening’s meeting, Assistant Chief Rhonda Volk quit as well. Volk stood and took the side of her former chief, opposing two of the commissioners.

“I will not compromise my values, until these two are removed or resign, I will not respond to any more calls,” Volk said.

There were other calls for Bainbridge and Commissioner Bill Kassel to step down, calls for them to reconsider and work to get along and demands for them to explain the chief’s termination.

As Martin described in a lengthy letter to local news media and spoke of to the gathering, he refused to further punish a member who had brought to his attention a misdeed by another member, who is a relative of Commissioner Kassel. Volk called it an attempt at retaliation.

Kassel saw it differently, and Bainbridge stood with him.

“One, he’s supposed to take direction from us,” Kassel said. “He refused to talk to us about projects, harassment charges.”

Commissioner Jeff Lee who voted no to appoint Adam Myer as interim chief, and who voted no about dismissing Martin said it’s hard to be a commissioner in Onalaska.

“I think we failed,” Lee said. “We never as a group asked him, we did it as individual commissioners.”

Myer is a former firefighter and fire investigator from the Chehalis Fire Department.

The conversation veered at times to disagreement about a new building, about deteriorating equipment, about a plan for keeping a fast-response vehicle parked at a volunteer’s house and even a past board of commissioners giving away “a chunk of the district to Salkum.”

Accusations that two of the commissioners violated the state open meetings rules by making decisions without Commissioner Lee led to a proposal for a five-member commission.

“We have no way to trust the two of you lifelong friends not talking business when you go hunting together,” community member Kathy Jackson said.

Martin has warned the loss of so many volunteers means citizens can expect a delay of twenty or more minutes if an out of district unit has to be called to handle an emergency.

Tobler spoke passionately about his concerns of a department down to 16 members.

He noted a one-person response on Monday to a rollover crash then a half an hour for a response to a 911 call about chest pain.

“When’s the last time any of the old members heard of a 30-minute response time?” Tobler asked.

Onalaska resident Pat Patterson, 74, stood and told of his worries about his and his wife’s well-being.

“I don’t want to wait for somebody from Salkum to come get me,” he said. “I don’t want my house to burn down.”

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Community members demand answers, suggest solutions at Lewis County Fire District 1 special meeting

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Rhonda Volk, far left, and Andrew Martin, second in from right, listen from back of room

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15 Responses to “Commissioners, volunteers clash at Onalaska fire department”

  1. KnowYourFacts says:

    @northwestfocus
    @steel
    By reading your comments, it appears as though neither of you were at this meeting. Had you been there, you would have witnessed Ms. Volk stand up and read her resignation letter to the Board and audience members. Perhaps you should get your facts straight before trying to slander a person. Each person that has resigned said they did it because they could no longer trust that Board to look out for the best interest of the community THEY were elected to serve. The Commissioners (specifically Bainbridge and Kassel) repeatedly violated RCWs, while constantly conspiring and conjuring up plans without the knowledge of now former Commissioner Lee. The Commissioners are the ones who have failed their community, not the volunteers.

    As Ms. Jackson stated, what seems to mandate these volunteers to continue to serve just because they did in the past? Shame on you for EXPECTING them to!

    And according to the district secretary, they had 24 members on the roster before the illegal firing of the Chief. 1 person hasn’t been around in over a year, so let’s call it 23. To date, 12 VOLUNTEERS have left the department. Anyone care to do the math??

    Remaining is:
    4 Kassel family members (3 EMTs)
    1 new mom, EMT – rarely responds
    1 college student – EMT – out of town school year
    1 5-year member – EMT- works out of town
    1 interim Chief – no current certs or EMT – rarely responds
    2 a married couple, still new & learning the ropes
    1 high school student

  2. Kathy Jackson says:

    Typo in my previous — husband has volunteered for this district, LCFD#1, for more than 7 years. Fumbly fingers.

    Also, for those on the fence or who support the commissioners, or for those in surrounding districts nervous about how District 1 is doing things, I’d urge you to come to a few commissioner meetings and watch how things go.

    Third Thursday of the month.

  3. Kathy Jackson says:

    By quitting, the volunteers are saying, “We can no longer volunteer to work under the current conditions.”

    We as a community have two choices in response to that:

    1) We can change the current conditions our volunteers face, or
    2) We can go find new volunteers.

    Changing the current conditions simply means that one of the two at-issue commissioners (either Rich Bainbridge or Bill Kassel) could voluntarily step down. That would be an instant fix, as all of the trained volunteers would come back to work that very day. Or we can recall one of those commissioners, and the volunteers would return once the recall issue was settled. That would take a few months, but would also bring back the existing, well-trained volunteers.

    As for finding new volunteers —

    Finding new volunteers is not as easy as it sounds. It is not just a matter of putting butts in seats, although even just finding people is certainly hard enough. Finding people who can cope with the emotional demands of responding to a car crash full of their friends or administering CPR to a person they may have known their whole life, that’s hard. These are often very special people on their own.

    But even once we’ve found those very special people, they will need training. Training isn’t free and it does not happen overnight. Remember: one of the issues in this conflict is that the commissioners slashed the training budget in order to keep paying into the Medic One system where Commissioner Kassel’s daughter works.

    Realistically, most volunteers – no matter how enthusiastic they are – are not much use on scene during their first year of service. They can grab gear and help lift patients, and that’s about it at first. It takes some serious work to get to a point where a person is familiar enough with all the equipment and trained enough to do what it takes on a call without a lot of direction from a trained other.

    And we just don’t have that many well-trained others anymore.

    On this thread, people are arguing over what percentage of LCFD#1’s volunteers have quit. But the raw numbers alone do not tell the whole story. The people who walked were nearly all of the department’s most active members.

    Remaining on the department (to the best of my knowledge, this is the entire list, though I may have missed someone), we have:

    * Four members of the Kassel family, including Commissioner Bill Kassel. Three of them have EMT certs.
    * Commissioner Lee, an EMT.
    * My husband (trained EMT who has a full-time job out of district).
    * A new member on probation.
    * Two FAST team members (high schoolers). One of them is still on probation as a new volunteer.
    * A new mom who rarely responds to calls.
    * A retired man who lives in Alaska and occasionally comes back to visit.
    * A college student who lives in eastern Washington during the school year.
    * A married couple working toward getting their EMT certifications but who are not yet certified.
    * An over the road truck driver who responds to fire calls (but not medical ones) when he’s home.
    * An EMT who rarely responds to any calls.
    * The new interim Chief, who has firefighting credentials but is not an EMT as required by district protocols.

    No matter how you count it, that’s a very bare cupboard.

    Most of our current department members have very little experience. With the exception of my husband, the members of the Kassel family, and the people who almost never respond to calls, no current member has more than five years of experience on our department. Most of them have considerably less than that.

    Despite Commissioner Bainbridge’s … somewhat bold … claims at the special meeting, relying heavily on Mutual Aid agreements will in fact significantly increase our emergency response times. Not to mention that the Mutual Aid system simply is not designed to bear the load of routine daily traffic from a district that does not have its own house in order. It is intended to function as a safety net, not a trampoline.

    For those not in the know, Mutual Aid works like this.

    1) Someone calls 9-1-1 for medical help.
    2) Dispatch sends a call over the radio for trained volunteers.
    3)
    4) Second call for volunteers.
    5)
    6) Dispatch sends out third call AND activates the Mutual Aid system with a radio call to the volunteers of a neighboring district.

    Even if the Mutual Aid system were activated earlier in the cycle (as it is for fire calls or when directly requested by someone on scene), the responders who come from neighboring districts – by definition! – come from outside the district. Being farther away, they naturally take longer to arrive on scene. Teleporters have not yet been invented.

    So we can certainly go looking for new volunteers, and train them. But in the meantime, the Onalaska area will suffer with longer response times as people come from out of district to cover our calls. Until our trained volunteers get back to work or until we recruit and train new volunteers, our district will have to cope with an incredibly thin roster of people who will be overworked. And we will have to continue ignoring what certainly appears to be conflicts of interest on the current board.

    As for the people who left, they are volunteers.

    If the people who walked no longer trust the commissioners and see no hope for change, what else are they to do? Do they *OWE* the rest of us anything? Anything at all?

    If so, on what grounds?

    The fact that they’ve volunteered in the past?

    Does their previous volunteer work mean they must now work involuntarily? (There’s a word for ‘forcing people to work against their wills’ and it’s not a pretty one.)

    Finally, just so you know where I’m coming from on this:

    My son has volunteered for LCFD#1 since he was 16 years old (he’s now in his mid-20s). He and our daughter-in-law both chose to leave the department. It was a decision made with tears and integrity.

    My husband has volunteered for LCFD#2 for more than seven years. He chose to stay. This, too, was a decision made with tears and integrity. He chose to stay not because he supports the path chosen by our current commissioners, but because he loves our neighbors and does not want anyone to suffer without medical care when they need it. He could not quit and leave neighbors in need. After all, both of us still remember the day two decades ago when I nearly lost my life and we nearly lost our youngest son to an acute medical emergency. Volunteers from LCFD#1 responded very quickly and got me to the hospital in time to save both our lives. Commissioner Kassel’s wife directed the volunteer responders that day. Above and beyond basic medical care, she held my hand to reassure me and literally cried with me when we heard the baby’s heartbeat that confirmed he was still alive.

    My heart goes out to Commissioner Kassel and his wife, who have to feel incredibly hurt over the entire situation. Although we disagree on the best path forward for our fire district, I wish them and their entire family the best.

    For an immediate solution to the crisis, Commissioner Kassel and/or Commissioner Bainbridge should resign immediately. This will get the district’s most-willing and best-trained volunteers immediately back responding to calls.

    For a longer-term solution, LCFD#1 should move to create a five-person commissioner board rather than one with only three people. (See my earlier post about that.)

    And for those who live in the Onalaska area, no matter who you might be rooting for in this mess: consider becoming a volunteer. We need ‘em.

  4. northwestfocus says:

    @ notamathematicianeither. Six quit but article states “roughly one-third” quit. One-fourth actually quit. Chief fired (didn’t quit) and Volk refusing to respond until her demands are met (didn’t quit though). Like you I try not to be “snarky” but the judgemental actions of those who are deciding who gets emergency services or not, by refusing to respond, is too unsettling.

  5. OnalaskaResident says:

    Mr. Kassel should be all too familiar with the difficulties of dealing with over puffed commissioners as that is the reason he is no longer the chief of this department. It is not the commissioners job to run the day to day activities of the department, those duties fall on the chief and his core officers. The commissioners job is to guide the department fiscally and be the voice of the community and tax payers when dealing with the budget. What a mess the commissioners have created by being too bullish.

  6. Southwestfocus says:

    I concur with Northwestfocus.

  7. Steel says:

    Boy, am I glad I don’t live and pay taxes and insurance in Onalaska! What a zoo that fire district must be.

    I was a volunteer officer in a large rural district with 125 volunteers and I promise that this kind of thing would never happen there. First, the three commissioners were way smarter than to do business this way, and second, I can’t even imagine one single individual there that would have been so immature and hot headed as to quit their positions over something like this.

    To those volunteers that quit: You should reexamine your priorities and start making cooler-headed decisions, which is an attribute that any effective firefighter/emt must have anyway. You are not showing much character or maturity to handle things that way. Remember your first (and sworn) duty. It is to the district residents’ safety. This kind of behavior only undermines the kind of confidence that residents should have for their volunteers. Volk especially is showing a very poor example to the others as a leader.

    To those that stayed: Thank you. I’d be proud to work alongside any of you.

    To all the readers: Please don’t judge the dedicated firefighters you see responding to future incidents by this fiasco. It really is an anomaly, but one that needs fixing. It doesn’t sound like the current commissioners are quite up to it.

    Now these commissioners are going to be sucking personnel and apparatus from neighboring districts which makes me a little nervous, since I’m in one of them.

    I loved the Fire Service and I still greatly respect our volunteers and am friends with current firefighters. We need every one we have, but this is embarrassing.

  8. Another district says:

    It’s easy for someone to sit back and Monday morning quarterback this situation, northwest focus. Perhaps if Mr. Kassel wishes to run the day to day operations of this once outstanding fire department he should step down as commissioner and throw his name back in the hat for chief. He should be all too familiar with being bulled over by over puffed commissioners as that is the reason he stepped down from chief in the first place many moons ago. The job of a commissioner is to guide the department in a fiscal nature and not run the operational side of things. That responsibility is on the chief and his core officers. Adam Myer was once an outstanding firefighter in Chehalis, I’m sure he too would do great things as chief in onalaska!

    Sad situation all around

  9. Notamathematicianeither says:

    @Northwestfocus… Clearly you arent a mathematician, because the article says chief+6 are no longer there as of the initial instance which =7. Add Ms. Volk, and we get 8. 8/24 is…? I try not to be too snarky on these things, but you were very judgmental in your post. I agree that losing firefighters is not what is best for the community, but something had to be done to jumpstart discussion about changes for this department. Troubles have been brewing for a long time, it is sad that this is the result of adults not coming to mutually beneficial agreements for Onalaska as a whole. If there really was no business, discussions, or decisions happening without Commissioner Lee present, then there should be no objection to increasing the commission to 5 people. That makes it more transparent so that any ‘collusion’, perceived or actual, would not be as likely.

  10. Amerigo Vespucci says:

    This type of “keep quiet” retaliatory backlash is what keeps corruption under wraps. Lewis County courts, commisioners, social workers, police all use this technique to punish those who expose fraud. It is part of the play book. It has become so wide spread it has even come to the fire dept. kudos to the citizen volunteer firefighters that will stand up to this type of corruption sadly it is the community and individuals who will suffer that stand up to it. They will all be burned at the stake. Pun intended. The system is broken and these commissioners are morally bankrupt. Vote them out ASAP!

  11. huh... says:

    Lewis County reaps what it sows.

  12. Kathy Jackson says:

    I am not usually a fan of larger government. However, a three-person commission is by its nature unstable and prone to abuse. This is why we need to turn our LCFD#1 three-person fire commission into a five person one — whether or not the recall effort is successful.

    Under Washington state’s open public meeting act (RCW 42.30), every time two of our commissioners privately discuss ahead of time what they intend to do at a public meeting and how they will vote or solve a problem that they know will be on the agenda, they have violated state law. The spirit and intent of Washington state’s public meeting act is to keep all decisive conversations genuinely in front of the public. It is a good law, partly because of what we see here – a place where the community and the local volunteers have lost faith in their commissioners because of the perception of unfair collusion between two commissioners to the detriment of the community.

    This repeated, perceived violation of the law would not happen if we had five commissioners instead of three, since a private two-person conversation creates a quorum in a three-person group, but does not create a quorum in a five-person group. This would make it possible for normal human conversations to happen without two people utterly dominating the board and violating both the letter and the spirit of the law.

    Such a change would also make it possible for each of the votes of the fire commission members to count. According to the public minutes of previous commissioner meetings, it has happened over and over and over again that one of our commissioners was completely blindsided by what the other two proposed, seconded, and passed with no meaningful discussion between all three commissioners.

    Again, discussions and decisions between those who form a quorum are by law and policy supposed to happen in front of the public, not behind closed doors.

    That’s why I call for a five-person fire commission for LCFD#1.

  13. silver creek says:

    This entire situation is ridiculous and they should reinstate the chief, and wait until there is an election to replace him or her at that time. These individuals go above and beyond to get out of bed day or night to provide aid or fire protection all as Volunteers, yes remember that VOLUNTEERS other than the Chief and assistant Chieft. So, I hope there is not a catastrophic event for anyone while all this is going on. Come on commissioners show some respect and sit down and work things out before letting things get so out of hand because in the end it is YOUR lively hoods as well as the communities at stake here.

  14. northwestfocus says:

    First off 6/24=1/4, not “roughly one-third”. At any rate, sounds like Volk is on a power trip and only harming those she swore to protect by not responding to calls for help. How does administrative differences justify refusing to answer calls for help? And this in the defense of not compromising her values? What values are those? I’m not getting my way so I’ll take my ball and go home? You hurt my feelings? Let the homes burn, the commissioners made me mad? I refuse to NOT act like a child? What “values” are you referring to? She should forever be banned from holding any position of public trust after this kind of harmful political posturing. Unbelievable she is the Assistant Chief with that attitude. Tobler seems very astute to the loss of volunteers, even pointing it out during the meeting. Let’s see if my simple mind can figure this complicated equation out too. “Assistant Chief” Volk refuses to help her innocent neighbor having a heart attack, “Captain” Tobler quits and several other political parrots follow suit. That would mean a decrease of firefighters. if you have 24 firefighters in a basket and six abandon the basket would you have more or less firefighters in the basket? I would pick “less” as the correct answer but I’m no mathematician. However I am familiar with the age old truth of a few (or six in this case) bad apples can spoil the bunch. Seems like this self purging is going to be good in the long term. What makes a person a firefighter is whether they answer the call or not. Those who quit or refuse to do so have put politics above patients and feelings above fires. The only problem left here is what appears to be a fire service reject with a drug history problem according to the link on his name in this piece. It would seem appropriate to at least place an advertisement or conduct interviews before filling the top spot. Rest easy Onalaska, unless your Rhonda Volk’s neighbor and in that case don’t bother going next door to ask for a cup of flour, let alone for help putting your house fire out. Happy Thanksgiving!

  15. Sunshinegirl says:

    This is a sad situation and I know nothing about it , but I know that volunteer’s are the life blood of these little towns and they work hard and put their own lives on hold. I sure hope they resolve these problems and I wish them well.

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