By Zach Hagadone
Amid public forum testimony at the Sept. 20 meeting of the Sandpoint City Council, mostly dominated by talk of the Travers Park trees, two members of the Selkirk Fire Department came forward with serious concerns about the direction of local fire protection services.
“I’m basically here to talk about retention; it’s kind of a massive problem in the fire department right now,” testified Clint Frank, an engineer with Selkirk Fire, 21-year veteran of the department and president of the Selkirk Firefighters Local 2319 union.
He went on to tell councilors that Selkirk Fire has lost four firefighters in the past six months and six in the past year and a half or so. That has left a total of nine personnel — including Chief Gavin Gilcrease — though with firefighters on leave or off duty, on any given day there are about six at work throughout the district, which covers 194 square miles and includes between 30,000 and 35,000 people.
Frank said that while higher wages in surrounding fire departments has been a draw, “the heart of the matter is inadequate staffing, a lack of operational support and leadership of the JPA — specifically the JPA chair.”
The JPA refers to the joint powers agreement in 2015 that consolidated the Sagle Fire District and Sandpoint Fire Department into Selkirk Fire, Rescue and EMS. Westside Fire joined in 2016, allowing the three jurisdictions to share resources, including a chief and assistant chief, though their finances remain separate.
A board of commissioners governs the JPA, represented by two members each from the Sandpoint City Council, Sagle Fire and Westside Fire districts, as well as a member of the community. Sandpoint City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton serves in a non-voting capacity as executive director.
“Under current leadership we’ve seen staffing decrease and battalion chief positions eliminated,” Frank testified, going on to refer to the Fitch Emergency Response Study, paid for with $45,000 from each agency in 2020 and which recommended that battalion chiefs — of which Selkirk Fire once had three, serving directly below the chief and adjacent to the assistant chief — be assigned supervisory and managerial duties held by the assistant chief and the latter position eliminated.
In the last round of contract negotiations in 2021, the battalion chiefs were stricken from the organizational chart and the department returned to a fire chief and deputy fire chief leadership model.
“These decisions over the last couple of years directly affect operational readiness, outcomes, staff morale and firefighter safety,” Frank told the council.
“Our No. 1 priority is to provide the best emergency response to Bonner County,” he added. “If we keep losing good firefighters, this will suffer. We are respectfully asking for a change in leadership for the JPA. We believe this will benefit the department and the communities we serve.”
Later in the Sept. 20 meeting, firefighter Jeff Calhoun — who has been with the department for 11 years and formerly served as a battalion chief — testified that he’d brought to the council’s attention the issue of single-person engines and understaffed stations within the Selkirk Fire service area in March, but “got zero response.”
“I’m back to say single-person stations and understaffed engines are a legal liability,” he said. “Leadership needs to change. Leadership needs to get more progressive toward the future and growth that Sandpoint has already seen.”
Calhoun added that Frank’s was the last new firefighter position hired by Sandpoint — all other hires have been to fill vacancies, rather than create new positions — and that occurred in 2002. Frank is currently 50 years old, Calhoun noted.
Selkirk Fire operates stations in Careywood, Dover, Sagle, Sandpoint and Wrenco. The Careywood station has a staff of two; Dover has no dedicated staff, though personnel rotate in and out as needed; Sagle has two firefighters on staff; and Sandpoint — Station No. 1 — has three on duty.
Personnel are deployed as needed, which can leave stations — other than Sandpoint — either working down to one firefighter on staff or empty. Additional satellite stations in Bottle Bay, Cocolalla, Laclede and Seneacquoteen are unstaffed, according to the Selkirk Fire website.
“Our fire department has asked for new hires and new safety equipment over the last three years only to be denied by leadership,” Calhoun said at the Sept. 20 meeting. “Again, we’ve lost six firefighters/captains in the last year and a half, four in the last six months to go work for better pay, better leadership at other nearby fire departments. How would you feel going to a house fire by yourself knowing that your next help would be 10 to 15 minutes behind you? Please help Selkirk Fire be a more robust department with leadership changes and funding to better serve the deserving public. Don’t compromise my safety and yours.”
According to a list provided to the Reader by Frank, since early 2021, when battalion chiefs were eliminated in the last contract negotiation with the union, three captains have left — two with more than 20 years of experience — one engineer retired early and two firefighters went elsewhere. Of those, two of the captains and both firefighters opted to take probationary firefighter jobs in other departments.
“People don’t leave 20-year careers when they’re vested in the state of Idaho with PERSI with six, seven years left in their careers,” Frank told the Reader in an interview. “What you’ll hear is a lot of folks are just leaving for more money. That’s true, they’re better funded in Kootenai County, Spokane County — they’re better funded. But the larger issue is the influence of the JPA executive director, lack of proper funding and operational leadership.”
What’s more, Frank is looking at early retirement in spring 2024, as is Captain Jake Hilton, who has been with the department for nearly 31 years.
“The stress of knowing that we’re so understaffed is driving me to consider resigning and doing something else as a career,” Hilton told the Reader in an interview. “The reason I don’t is that I know that I’ll then create a vacancy that one of my coworkers will have to fill. … I don’t want to sound like a whiny fireman, but my back is covered in straw and it wouldn’t take me much to walk away right now, and I have to tell you one of the reasons I don’t is the love and respect of my coworkers. If they have to be in it then I might as well embrace the suck and be with them.”
“It’s not the money that’s making me want to leave and have another career. I’ve made do with this career for 30 years, 27 full-time,” he added. “I don’t feel valued.”
Hilton said that he joined as a volunteer in 1993, was hired full-time in 1997 and promoted to captain in 1999.
“We’ve gone through a few chiefs … and a couple of years ago the city, specifically Jennifer Stapleton, approached the three fire districts and said basically, ‘If you don’t let the city of Sandpoint assume all the employees and positions, Sandpoint’s going to drop out [of the JPA],” he said.
“There was a lot of us that didn’t want it to happen. To me, yes, it seemed like a power play — a way to control this agency and bring it under one umbrella,” he added. “Speaking for myself, I told people that if I were them, in their situation, I wouldn’t want to work for the city of Sandpoint.”
Hilton said Selkirk Fire currently suffers from “micromanagement from the very top,” with directives and policies that make it difficult — or downright dangerous — for firefighters to do their jobs.
One example he offered came this past summer, when the department was operating under a former directive not to take fire trucks on medical calls.
“Which is fine, I guess we can do that, but we were directed to take a particular vehicle that didn’t have any water on it,” he said. “When we’re out and about we can get any kind of call.”
In this particular case, that’s what happened.
“Case in point, the guys who were out on the medical call that day, in a truck with no water, no firefighting equipment, were dispatched to a structure fire at one of the churches in town. They managed to put it out using the two-and-a-half-gallon water can that we carry in every truck and a garden hose that’s sitting outside the church,” he said, adding that while the Sandpoint station is now empowered to respond to medical calls with the ladder truck, the other stations are still directed to leave their engines in the garage and respond to non-fire emergencies using the brush truck.
“We don’t have enough staffing to where when you get a medical call you can send two guys out to a medical call on a brush truck or a rescue vehicle and leave two guys back at the station with the structure fire fighting equipment,” Hilton said. “It’s just two of us. We have to take all of our tools with us every time.”
That’s a scary scenario, he said, particularly in cases where a response may require a rescue and a crew isn’t carrying the proper equipment.
“That is first and foremost in our minds is the ability to try to effect a rescue. Without the stuff on the engine or the truck, that’s not going to happen,” Hilton said.
“Honestly, we’re MacGyvers. We have to figure out what’s going on and how to facilitate the end of that process with what we have,” Calhoun said.
‘It’s a process’
Chief Gilcrease, who joined the department from St. Johns, S.C. in August 2021, chalked up the wave of departures from Selkirk Fire to a combination of more, better-paying jobs in the region and expanding retirements across the fire service in general.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s a retention issue; I believe we’re in a period of opportunity that hasn’t been there before,” he told the Reader in an interview at City Hall. “There’s opportunities out there right now that I don’t think existed going back five years ago.”
Specifically, Gilcrease pointed to the rapid growth in Kootenai and Spokane counties to the south, and, for the first time, Sandpoint has been caught in the recruitment net for those larger communities. For example, he said, firefighters can leave a community like Sandpoint for Spokane and after three years be making more than $100,000 as a firefighter.
“There’s no way we can compete with that. That’s just not our market,” he added.
Those who have left Selkirk Fire did so to seek higher pay or pursue other private sector employment, Gilcrease said. Meanwhile, the city has posted two openings in the department and 42 applicants have already come forward, he added.
Stapleton echoed Gilcrease, saying, “across the government sector we’ve talked about hitting retirements in general in the workforce and in government it’s a retirement cliff that’s more significant than what you’re seeing in the private sector. … Just in our fire service here, we’ve got several who meet their retirement eligibility in the next year.”
Frank, Hilton and Calhoun — all of whom are considering retirement next year or in the immediate coming years — push back against the idea that their colleagues are leaving solely for more money or that those departures can be rightly called retirements or opportunity seeking. Rather, they characterize them as resignations.
“The reason that they’re leaving, it’s a hot point. What do we need to do to stop this? What is the contributing factor to stop it?” Calhoun told the Reader in a phone interview. “And so that’s why I will retire soon, in three years, but it’s like, we need to change this culture.”
Calhoun, like Frank and Hilton, chalks the problem up to leadership.
“I think it’s the city administration; the head of the JPA, and the reason I say that is because in the three to four years that we’ve been under this umbrella, this person has misinformationed everything that has come out in regards to people leaving,” he said, later adding, “When you lose a person who as been a battalion chief, that has 20, 21, 22 years of service, that leaves to work as a probationary firefighter for another department — I mean, they’re going from, ‘I’ll tell you what to do,’ to, ‘You tell me what to do,’ for $81,000 a year because this is so broken — that’s a glaring issue.”
Calhoun, as well as Hilton, also criticized Gilcrease’s leadership, with Calhoun saying, “The problem we have is I can’t go to my boss [with a problem] and they fix it. When you go to your ‘boss’ and they don’t do anything, what do you have to do? I have to look out for myself and that’s kind of where we’re all at.”
“I think Chief Gilcrease is good at following directions from his superiors,” Hilton said. “In most cases we don’t know why we’re being told to do this or do that. Even if we were told ‘why’ we would be able to understand what the end game is. There’s almost no communication. …
“We’re burned out. We’re burned out,” he added. “This model is unsustainable.”
Both Gilcrease and Stapleton said that growing the department is easier said than done. According to Gilcrease, the hope is that voters will approve a levy next spring that could bring staffing up to two at the Wrenco station and ensure that Sagle Fire stations remain filled at all times.
Combined, Westside and Sagle Fire, which include Dover and Wrenco and Sagle and Careywood, respectively, need three more full-time equivalent employees, which represents an 80% budget increase for Westside and an 18% hike for Sagle. Most of that expense is personnel salaries and benefits, which Gilcrease said would total about $300,000. Assuming one of those hires is an officer, that number would be more like $400,000.
“It’s not something that just all of sudden showed up. We’ve looked at it for a while now,” Gilcrease said, later adding, “It’s a process, it’s not like we’re just going to go out and hire 12 people.”
However, he agreed that single-person trucks are inefficient and unsafe, which is why the department changed its response policy around the new year so that if a call goes out requiring a station to work down to one person on staff, the responder would be accompanied by a second engine.
“We don’t want them going out alone,” Gilcrease said. “It was an effective way to kind of help that situation until we could get more staffing … we needed something as a stopgap so that’s what we came up with and that’s what we’re running with right now until we can get those positions filled or created, as the case may be.”
What’s more, Gilcrease said that when he entered the chief’s position, it had been policy that if the sole person on staff in Westside was out on leave, they would “just brown out that station.”
“We corrected that, we don’t brown out that station anymore,” he said.
Stapleton said leave taken by fire personnel is one of the contributing factors to staffing stresses.
“We’ve had times when it’s more than a third of the workforce has been out simultaneously at a given time, and the level of leave that we have seen in that service area is something we have never seen across our entire entity in any single department ever,” she said. “Not currently, not in the past, when we have so many people out on leave simultaneously, and that impacts staffing with stations potentially staffed with only one person, one person in a rig, and to add to that people being called back in on overtime.
“It’s really hamstrung the agencies with the amount of leave that has existed with fire services. The overtime budgets for all three agencies have been blown to smithereens.”
All that said, Stapleton noted that the Sandpoint station has never worked down to one person on staff.
“We’ve talked about staffing levels and the need to add more staffing in Sandpoint at some point with the population growth, that’s going to be a reality but that reality is not today,” she said, going on to refer to the Fitch study, which she said indicated that, “based on the numbers then, the types of calls, they did not recommend that we needed an increase in staffing. And we haven’t seen a substantial increase in calls or types of calls that would justify something different since that time, but it is on the horizon — probably in the next five years Sandpoint’s going to need to look at adding additional staffing.”
According to Calhoun, the crisis is ongoing. “It’s absolutely chaos,” he said.
“If we get a call in North Side, because we have an agreement with North Side, and we’re staffed with two, we leave the department and head to North Side to help them out. Station 5, which is Wrenco, comes in — which is a single-person station — which it should never be, it’s not even national standards, so they come into Station 1 to cover,” he said.
“So if you have a house fire at your house, you’re getting one person,” he added. “So if one person shows up, and say grandma’s in the second story, you need to rescue grandma. National standards tell us two in, two out. Which means I will not go into that house until a second response shows up. Your second response is anywhere from 15 to 18 minutes away. So, read what you want into it, but grandma’s probably not going to survive that fire.”
The national standards are guidelines, however, and Sandpoint has never been able to field adequate staff to meet them.
“If we were to do things by the book, we’d have to stand outside and watch it burn before two more firefighters showed up,” Hilton said.
For Calhoun, that’s a liability issue. Slower response times are one thing, but another is that firefighters go into incident response itself without someone watching their back.
“You have to prove that you’re running an emergency system that’s going to negate the legal liability side of it,” he said, “but I can’t prove that I wasn’t negligent in terms of driving, for instance, if I’m one person.”
‘Do we want professional administration in the city?’
Aside from understaffing, Selkirk firefighters who spoke with the Reader pointed to day-to-day management as a problem. For instance, Hilton said that there’s almost always at least one fire engine broken down with no replacement plan. Some of the vehicles are waiting for parts, but getting approval to purchase parts — much less equipment — has become cumbersome.
In the past, Hilton said, “If I needed a hammer, I had the authority to go purchase the hammer, turn in the receipt and the chief would trust that I made the right decision. That doesn’t happen anymore.”
Rather, if a truck is broken down and a part is needed beyond something simple, “we have to call around, get prices, get the purchase order, wait for the purchase order to be approved by two people, and the purchase order comes back to us and we’re authorized to get that part,” Hilton said. “Speaking for myself only, anytime I submit a purchase order, I expect a two-week process.”
“That insults me because I get paid a decent wage to make hopefully smart decisions in managing the day-to-day operations in the department, entrusted with protecting the district, making sure my crews are safe and everybody goes home at the end of the day, but I don’t feel like I’m trusted to go purchase a $50 tool,” he added. “We’re not buying chrome or bling for our fire engines.”
Asked about the purchase order process, allegations of “micromanagement” and whether a firefighter should be able to go out and purchase a hammer without prior approval, Gilcrease said, “absolutely not.”
“You’re a governmental agency,” he added, pointing out that the fire service like any other agency is subject to financial tracking and audits.
“There has to be internal controls,” Stapleton said.
“There was no real oversight of what was going on, now there is,” Gilcrease said, later adding, “There has to be a method and there has to be a process. You can’t just go out blank checking whatever you want to buy.”
That kind of loose financial control resulted in all manner of legal snarls in the past, which Stapleton and Gilcrease both said are still being sorted out.
Though the process of buying a $50 hammer might seem trivial, Hilton said it’s indicative of a larger trend, describing a corporatization of fire operations that doesn’t benefit their functioning.
“The local fire department used to be the pride of the community, well this fire department is not run by locals anymore,” he said. “None of the people that are in positions of power are local. I don’t feel like it’s a community fire department anymore; it feels like it’s being run like a business with a business model that’s not sustainable.”
Calhoun put an even finer point on it, saying that when he served as union representative four years ago, the department was working with 20-year-old extrication equipment that it can’t get parts for. Meanwhile, the department secured a grant for breathing packs but they require a $40,000 compressor.
“We have not seen the compressor or the extrication equipment or anything relative to anything we have talked about four years ago,” he said, adding, “You’re compromising my safety. That’s the issue.”
“Don’t make somebody else go to my door and knock on my door and tell my wife I’m not coming home. Don’t do that to me,” Calhoun said. “And that’s where we’re at. I’m done with it. I’m done with you disregarding my life, my employment, because you want to run it like a business. Do not do that to me. Do not make my wife get that knock on the door. Sorry, I’m getting a little emotional. It’s horseshit.”
Frank also described the JPA structure as “very corporate-like.”
“It’s too small of a town; we’re not a town of half a million,” he said. “It should still have a great small-town feel.”
If that’s been laid at Stapleton’s feet, she doesn’t see that as accurate.
“I don’t run the fire department,” she told the Reader in a phone interview. “People can think what they want to think, but I don’t run the fire department. And my role at the JPA Board, I’m the executive director; I’m actually not a decision maker. I don’t have a vote.”
Frank said that may be the case, but, “Jennifer Stapleton is the head of the JPA. Even though she has no voting rights, she has influence.”
The JPA Board meets once a month, and Frank said Stapleton is “always in the chief’s ear. At least that’s our perception.”
Likewise, HiIton said, “[E]ven though the directive may come from the chief or chiefs, I feel that those directives are coming from Jennifer. To be honest they don’t seem like directives that would come from a very experienced fire chief, like Chief Gilcrease or [Deputy] Chief [Jeff] Armstrong.”
“That’s what we’re up against, and with no real leadership in regards to a person, a chief, we don’t know if he’s actually carrying the ball or if he’s actually being suppressed, so we’re lost and we need to come out,” Calhoun said. “And that’s why the information is coming out, because we can’t survive like this anymore.”
Rather, Stapleton said the conflict over JPA leadership comes down to a bigger disagreement.
“I feel like fundamentally what’s going on is we’re in a fight as a community about, do we want professional administration in the city?” she said, adding later, “At the end of the day, with the fire, from my general perspective, there was little accountability. … I mean, there’s been no management. Now there’s leadership and management, which I was hired to do, and [they] don’t like what goes along with it.”
‘The public does not understand’
Firefighters have already gone public with their call for Stapleton to step down as the chair of the JPA, but they are also quick to say they support the continuation, even expansion, of the partnership.
The union renegotiates its contract every three or four years, and the next round of negotiations are due to take place in March 2024.
“There’s always this fear that one of the agencies will drop out of the JPA, and the crews strongly believe in keeping the JPA together,” Frank said, later adding, “We have a good command staff … both very capable and strong leaders who can bring the fire department to where it needs to be. We just need a new executive director at the JPA to let them do their jobs.”
Frank said there will be an opportunity to address that in the next contract, as well as the funding and organizational structure.
As it stands, Sagle, Sandpoint and Westside all contribute a portion based on property value and the number of employees in each agency.
Sandpoint’s fire services budget is just shy of $1.5 million in the fiscal year 2024 budget, while Westside contributes about $568,000 and Sagle Fire chips in about $1.7 million, according to Gilcrease. The latter two districts have different taxing structures, with Westside gathering revenue from both improved and unimproved properties, while Sagle only taxes improved properties for fire services.
When Sagle or Westside want to make an expenditure, Sandpoint sends a bill and is reimbursed by the purchasing agency.
Frank said the JPA was originally intended to be a stepping stone to a larger, even more unified regional agency. Getting to that goal, he added, would help ease some of the managerial strain.
“We’d like to either become a fire authority or a fire district, with the ability to run our crews and have one pot of money to manage for all the shared fire services,” he said. “That’s why we have a county EMS — we should have a county-wide fire department.”
Stapleton said, “there’s been a level of frustration for the JPA not moving forward … creating a separate district. That was the vision of the former chief and that was originally the vision, per our former finance director of the city, was to move fire out as a city service, which is common, and into a district. What you’re talking about in Sandpoint is you’re creating a new taxing district.”
However, she said, “This is very complicated when you’re talking about combining fire districts and a department that is in a general purpose government and ultimately you’re talking about raising taxes in all three jurisdictions.”
For Gilcrease, growing the department is “just a time and temperature thing. We’re going to keep progressing.”
“It has to be on a predetermined time frame,” he said. “The ‘dire’ [statements by firefighters] is not going to make me move any faster on that. … When it’s time to grow, we’ll grow. We’re seeing it in Westside, we’re seeing shades of it Sagle.”
Ultimately, the JPA is due to expire early next year, which makes the upcoming contract negotiations all the more important — especially as some personnel feel like the last contract didn’t benefit the department as much as it should have.
“Panda Express, their managers make, I think, it’s $66,000 a year; we’re at $61,000-$62,000 as a base engineer. And that’s why people are leaving because, No. 1, you can’t afford to live in Sandpoint, you can’t afford to get a decent wage in Sandpoint, and when we bring up bettering ourselves because of the education, the training and everything we have, we get thrown back in our face that, ‘You signed the contract,’” Calhoun said. “We signed it, yes we did, but we just basically poo-pooed on ourselves.”
The future of the JPA is very much on the table.
“Whether agencies want to participate in the JPA or not is something that agencies will need to be discussing in the coming months,” Stapleton said, noting that, “It’s unique in this state in that there is one employee group that is entitled to unionizing and collective bargaining and that’s fire. …
“I’m sure that hasn’t been lost in the mix,” she added, referring to firefighters going public now with their concerns over staffing and leadership.
“The employees don’t want to get rid of the JPA, but at this point if it continues the way it’s going, the employees are even going, ‘I don’t care, let’s just go back to the way it was,’” Calhoun said, suggesting that it may just “implode itself.”
“This needs to go out and needs to be public because the public does not understand that they’re only getting maybe one, maybe two firefighters and the response that comes after that is inadequate,” Calhoun added, describing why he felt the need to speak out.
Hilton agreed that it comes down to public safety.
“I think the people have this mistaken belief that if they see us out and about doing our thing, they’re really well protected. They’re not. It’s a facade,” he said. “The reason that we’ve done as well as we have up to this point is that we’re very good at making due with very little, and we’re very, very lucky and one of these days that’s going to run out.”
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