East Pierce moves to hire new chief

East Pierce Fire and Rescue news

The East Pierce Fire and Rescue Fire commissioners have decided the direction they will be taking the fire department in the near future. During the Feb. 11 special meeting, the commissioners voted 6–1 to hire Greg Prothman to perform a national search for a new fire chief.

Commissioner Kevin Garling said he believed it is the board’s responsibility to make sure the department is not rudderless when Fire Chief Jerry Thorson retires at the end of April.

“We need to get some leadership in place,” Garling said. “I think it is important to reach out and start the process for finding the right leader.” The board voted to hire Prothman on March 2 and begin the search for a new chief if no other decisions are made before March.

National search

Prothman came to the Feb. 11 special meeting to present to the commissioners his plan for finding a new fire chief.

Prothman has completed more than 30 fire chief searches since 2001, and is currently searching for fire chiefs for Seattle, Lake Stevens and Marysville.

During his presentation, Prothman said his search process is extremely inclusive, working collaboratively with the commissioners, the Local 3520 Firefighter’s Union, firefighters and citizens to create the most desirable profile for potential chiefs.

Once he is armed with a strong profile for the position, Prothman said he would mail fire chiefs in the western U.S. and advertise in trade publications for the position.

Prothman said he expected to receive around 50 applications, and he would eventually pair down the applicants to the top five before performing final research and organize public receptions.

The fire commissioners make the final decision on which applicant to hire.

It would cost the department $18,500 as a flat fee to hire Prothman, plus a high estimation of $7,500 for advertising, postage, and travel for final applicants.

In total, the department plans to spend around $25,000 for this process, which would come out of the department’s ending fund balance.

The commissioners agreed the cost for hiring Prothman is less expensive than if the department were to perform a search by itself. Prothman expected this process would take 75 to 80 days, which would put a new fire chief in the department by mid-June.

Thorson voiced his approval of Prothman and the board’s decision at the meeting, saying the best thing for the department to do is get a new chief before looking at other options.

“What the organization needs most right now is stability and strong leadership,” Thorson said. “Right now what I believe this organization needs the most is somebody to come in and help the organization.”

Thorson said he would be willing to delay his retirement for a couple months if a search was taking longer than expected, to make sure the department wouldn’t be left in a lurch before a new chief was found.

Other options

While the majority of the commissioners voted to hire Prothman, Commissioner Rick Kuss was the only one to vote against hiring him.

Although Kuss said he was just as impressed with Prothman’s presentation and credentials as the other commissioners, he said the decision to hire Prothman in March was a hasty decision and not looking at other options would be immensely detrimental for the department.

“Making rush judgments has never been a part of the history of East Pierce Fire and Rescue board,” Kuss said after the meeting. “Hurrying into hiring (Prothman) was one of the poorest decisions that I’ve seen made by the commission in 25 years.”

Kuss said hiring a new fire chief without a deputy chief, fire marshal or finance officer, all of which are open positions in the department, would be setting the new chief up for failure under a massive workload.

Former Deputy Chief John McDonald retired Feb. 1, and the fire commissioners do not plan to fill the vacant position in the near future.

Kuss said he has never heard of a fire chief and deputy chief retiring in such close succession, and “it gives us excellent opportunity to look at other things.”

Instead of hiring Prothman, Kuss suggested other options like consolidating with a neighboring fire district, contracting with another city or hiring an interim chief.

A merger with another fire department would allow their current command structure to lead East Pierce.

Several commissioners and Thorson disagreed with Kuss, saying the department does not have the resources, time or resident support to research a merger, and hiring an interim chief would only put the department through further turmoil.

“The membership is calling out for leadership,” Thorson said. “We need to pick a direction.”

Kuss will continue to research other options before the March 2 deadline.

Rick Kuss’ official statement

The following was written by Commissioner Rick Kuss to the Courier Herald on Feb. 13:

“I have been involved with various areas of Public Safety in East Pierce county for the past 44 years, 25 of those as a fire commissioner at East Pierce Fire and Rescue, and I was Board Chair during all of the previous mergers and consolidations. I figure I have a pretty good working knowledge of how the fire service works, and fully understand the “how’s and why’s” of East Pierce’s formation, which is to provide the highest level of service to our customers with the funding mechanisms approved by them. Early on we realized that by putting all of the fire districts and city departments together and developing a regional fire service, we could provide a better level of service.

“Based on those years of experience, on Wednesday night my biggest concern was that the Board was being rushed into making a decision and not considering all opportunities for the future of East Pierce Fire and Rescue. Contracting for Administrative Services (with another Fire District, Regional Fire Authority (RFA) or city), hiring an Executive Director, researching a  merger or consolidation with a neighboring fire district, RFA or city, hiring an Interim Chief and/or a fulltime Chief, are all viable options. Due to the current financial situation, and the unprecedented event of  both the Chief and Deputy Chief retiring within the next 3 months (which I have never seen before in 44 years of service), going out and immediately hiring a consultant to look for a fire chief without identifying and understanding all of our opportunities was not the best choice. You could probably tell that I was very surprised and disappointed to see that recommendation so soon after we received the Chief’s retirement letter, particularly since the Board Chair had promised me personally, and in an email to all East Pierce personnel that “The Board intends to take as much time as necessary to make the right leadership decision for our future”, just a week earlier. I believe that a few more weeks to make sure we had made the right decision would have had minimal affect on the organization and been the right thing to do.

“Making rush judgments has never been a part of the history of East Pierce Fire and Rescue Board and hurrying into hiring a fire chief Wednesday night was one of the poorest decisions that I’ve seen made by the commission in 25 years. I am very disappointed. This decision has set the course for East Pierce for a minimum of 5 to 7 years, and I believe that the commissioners don’t fully understand the long term impacts that their decision will make to our organization. I believe they got caught up in a poor recommendation by a short sighted staff and Board Chair that seem to not fully appreciate the Mission, Vision and Values (MVV’s) we worked so hard for in building our organization. The key to East Pierce’s recovery is for us to return to the MMV’s established by our previous leaders, the ones that really did all the hard work in planning for our future. These MMV’s are rock solid and if followed will continue to make East Pierce a successful fire district into the future.”