Search is on for new fire chief

Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) could have a new chief by the end of May if headhunter Greg Prothman’s forecast is met.

And that new chief will be coming into a department that commissioners at a recent retreat unanimously called, according to many of those present, a “combination department” — a department composed of both volunteer and career staff.

VIFR actually began to be a combination department in 2001 when it hired eight career firefighter/emergency medical technicians (EMTs). At the time, the stated purpose of those hires was to support the volunteers in what was then described as primarily a volunteer organization with a long history of being solely run by volunteers.

But after speaking individually with many people, including commissioners and volunteer and career staff as well as interested community members, Prothman concluded that the department did not have a clear sense of its own profile. So Prothman, who was hired by the department after Keith Yamane resigned last fall, requested a meeting with the commissioners on Sunday, Feb. 24, to try to pin down what kind of department VIFR is.

Prothman said he needed to know that in order to conduct the search for a new chief, who would want to know what kind of department was hiring her or him. It would also make it easier for him to define a profile of the kind of chief the department would look to hire.

After about two hours of discussion, according to acting chief Mike Kirk, the group came to agree that the department is and will be a combination department.

“We all agreed that it is a combo department,” said newly elected commissioner Neal Philip. “It is not a volunteer department and not a career department. Everybody agreed, and that was significant. This was the first time that everybody agreed to that.”

That unanimity was a breakthrough, agreed board chair David Hoffman.

“The board is working together well,” he added.

Although the combination model at Vashon fire department hasn’t worked well the past few years, Prothman said, “It’s not a bad department, and it is fixable.”

He cited his own service as a volunteer in the Snoqualmie department as an example of a combination outfit that’s working well.

Prothman, who specializes in looking for top administrators for public sector organizations, said he believes there are plenty of experienced people who would be interested in working at VIFR and could help it improve as a combination department. There are current chiefs with that specific experience and skill, ranging from assistant chiefs at the beginnings of their careers who have been well-mentored to chiefs with long experience who might want to come to Vashon as the last step on their careers, he said.

The search, while national in scope, is focused on the western United States, he added.

“We will send 600 letters of invitation to all districts of comparable size in the 11 western states,” he said. He said that he would use the range of 5,000 to 40,000 people served to define comparability.

“We want somebody to come here and stay here,” said Philip. “We want a chief who will fall in love with Vashon and not want to leave.”

Prothman agreed that the new chief would have to enjoy living on an Island and especially on the kind of island Vashon is.

He also cited three elements the department should look for: strong leadership skills, experience with a combination department and a belief that solid civic debate is a good thing.

To make the department work as a combination group, several commissioners agreed that increasing volunteer participation is a necessity.

Former chair Ron Turner indicated that the department is hoping to make a push for volunteers, but, he hoped, with a new approach.

“We need to rethink our training,” he said.

About 80 percent of the department’s calls are medical, he added, noting that volunteer training should take account of that by separating the firefighting and medical elements so that some volunteers could become just EMTs without the firefighting skills. That would make it more convenient for some volunteers because they would not need the physical strength skills that firefighters require.

“People just don’t have the time,” said Turner. “We need to get the training to fit that. There has to be a way you can improvise.”

Commissioner Jan Nielsen said that at the Feb. 24 meeting he and active volunteer Charlie Krimmert made a mutual commitment to “figure it out together.”

Nielsen, a longtime Islander, said that many years ago, there were large Island businesses like K2 that paid their VIFR-member employees to go on runs. The current smaller businesses can’t afford that, he said. VIFR has to find a way to make it possible for Islanders to volunteer within their time constraints, a task that will be front and foremost for whomever the department hires as the new chief, he said.

Prothman, who’s being paid 25 percent of the starting salary of the new chief, expects to earn $25,000 to $26,000 for the job. The new fire chief will likely earn around $100,000 a year.

He added that the contract contains a guarantee that the new chief will stay for at least two years. Otherwise, he said, his company will conduct a replacement search with no professional fees, just the cost of the process.

Prothman, whose firm is based in Seattle, has been in the business of public sector executive recruitment for 13 years and has helped find fire chiefs for departments in East Jefferson, Bothell, Arlington, Lynnwood and Snohomish.

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