NWFR chief Ron Anderson resigns during tense union negotiations

Chief Ron Anderson, r., presents an honorary plaque to firefighter Doug Clark at the fire commissioners meeting on April 16.

Chief Ron Anderson, r., presents an honorary plaque to firefighter Doug Clark at the fire commissioners meeting on April 16.

By Steve Guntli

Amid tensions from union representatives and staff, North Whatcom Fire and Rescue (NWFR) chief Ron Anderson announced he would resign from his office effective May 1.

Anderson came under fire during the April 16 fire commissioners meeting, when Joel Sellinger, a former firefighter for the district, attacked Anderson in a six-minute speech. Sellinger accused Anderson of poor management and understaffing.

“Chief Ron Anderson neither respects nor values his employees,” Sellinger said. “What was once a proud organization has been replaced with a ‘walking on eggshells’ culture, where friends are rewarded, numbers are fudged and good people are regarded as dollar amounts on a budget. I urge you now, no, I demand that you terminate Chief Anderson effective immediately.”

Sellinger and three other firefighters received layoff notices in 2013. Subsequently, firefighters from Station 12 at Bristol Loop went door to door to gain support for an Emergency Medical Services levy that would protect the firefighters from being laid off. The levy passed, but the layoff notices were not rescinded for another several months. Sellinger alleged Anderson kept the firefighters on notice so the department could apply for SAFER grants, which provide federal funds to understaffed stations. That grant never came through. The four firefighters were not laid off, but left the department anyway. Sellinger now works for the Everett Fire Department.

Union representatives at a collective bargaining negotiation meeting on April 29 echoed Sellinger’s complaints. The union reps were seeking raises for the first time in three years. At the end of that meeting, Anderson agreed to resign his position.

NWFR and district 4 fire commissioners denied the allegations in a statement signed by six of the eight commissioners.

“We understand that it is not unusual for firefighters to bring up safety, staffing issues and related matters in the middle of labor talks,” the statement read. “These types of allegations are often driven by demands over wages and benefits.”

Admitting that the negotiations have been challenging, NWFR officials have reached out to the Public Employment Relations Commission to provide a mediator for future negotiations.

“We want to assure our citizens that North Whatcom Fire and Rescue complies with applicable state, local and national standards regarding fire and emergency medical services,” the statement read. “Our stations are properly staffed with trained personnel to respond to emergencies. We will continue to work with our represented employees to reach a collective bargaining agreement that is fair, reasonable and sustainable.”

Anderson’s contract includes a six-month grace period that would let him stay with the department through October, but he hasn’t announced whether he intends to stay on while the district looks for his replacement.

Anderson has been with NWFR since 2012, when he came out of retirement to replace Chief Tom Fields. Before that, Anderson worked for the fire service in Nampa, Idaho since the 1970s.

Anderson could not be reached for comment.

North Whatcom Fire and Rescue serves district 4, the largest fire district in the county, which covers 182 square miles of mostly rural Whatcom County. The NWFR also serves Blaine, Birch Bay, Lynden and parts of north Bellingham.

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