North Whatcom considers consolidation

Published on Thu, Mar 24, 2011 by By Jeremy Schwartz

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Plans to consolidate services between North Whatcom Fire and Rescue (NWFRS) and Fire District 4 are under way as the two districts discuss a consolidated budget and possible employment issues.

NWFRS chief Tom Fields told the district board of commissioners at their regular meeting last Friday that district staff are working on a consolidated budget that is still about $240,000 out of balance. The budget would lay out how the two districts’ finances would fund their combined fire and emergency response services.

Fields explained a consolidation of services is different from a merger of districts in that the two districts would keep separate fire chiefs and boards of commissioners, but share personnel and funds to a certain degree. NWFRS, the largest fire district in Whatcom County, is the result of a 2007 merger between districts 13 and 3. A district merger requires a vote of the people, Fields said.

“[The consolidation] would be invisible to the average person in the [NWFRS] district,” Fields said.

Last October, district 4 administrators decided their training and engine maintenance programs would benefit from consolidation with NWFRS, Fields said. Since then, NWFRS and district 4 staff have been discussing the details of consolidation, with improvements to both districts’ response times being the main positive, he explained.

The boundaries of NWFRS and district 4, which covers northeast Bellingham and east Lake Whatcom, meet at East Smith and Noon roads. Fields said being able to staff district 4’s stations with NWFR personnel would improve NWFRS’s response time to emergencies in the southeast portion of their district, such as a February 25 fire in the 1000 block of East Pole Road.

While combining operations will most likely be seamless, Fields said possible employee compensation problems within District 4 could make the consolidation more difficult. He said he believes, but has yet to confirm, District 4’s practices could be in violation of the state department of labor and industries.

“It’s a big red flag for me right now,” Fields said.

Field said it appears that District 4 employees who work 12-hour shifts are not being fully compensated. Getting to the bottom of this issue might require an independent audit because regular state audits do not check for compliance with department of labor regulations, he explained.

Fields said he will send a letter addressing these issues to District 4 administrators within the week and plans to meet with them in person soon after.

He said further discussion on possible issues with district 4’s pay practices would wait until after he had the opportunity to explore the issue with their chief and board of commissioners.