Friday, June 8, 2007

Fire issue needs another look

Review the facts of fire services

Geoff Moore is a Hailey resident. He served for 11 years with the Hailey Fire Department before retiring from fire fighting earlier this year.


In the interest of honesty, which has sometimes been missing in recent reporting of fire department issues, I state at the outset that I am a former 11-year member of the Hailey Fire Department volunteers.

I've read with great interest Jason Kauffman's and Jon Duval's three-part series in the Mountain Express on the subject of fire-service consolidation in southern Blaine County, as well as the editorial in the May 23 edition. In reading these articles, I keep coming back to the same question—a question, by the way, that I've heard numerous people in the community ask: Are Kauffman and Duval the department publicists for Wood River Fire and Rescue?

I, like many others, have not been able to read the articles or editorial as an objective examination of the pros and cons of fire department consolidation in southern Blaine County. Rather, they have read as though they are a sales pitch promoting the takeover of all fire protection service in Hailey and Bellevue by Wood River Fire and Rescue. Hanoi Hannah and Tokyo Rose would have been proud.

The Kauffman/Duval article begins Part 2 by yet another accounting of a fire that occurred in Hailey on Feb. 4. The authors point out that the Hailey Fire Department experienced an inadequate response due to a lack of available personnel at the time. The article fails to mention that the department had previously made its neighboring fire departments aware that there would be a shortage of personnel that weekend due to out-of-town travel. Fair enough, Hailey was undermanned and the automatic-aid agreement was valuable that day with Wood River's assistance. The authors use this experience to support their assertion that because Wood River has full-time—I'll get back to that—staffing, consolidation is warranted.

The article fails to mention another fire that occurred in Wood River's jurisdiction on Broadford Road, around the same time, that was attacked, contained and controlled largely due to the response by Hailey. In this case, Hailey's manpower was imperative as it would have been extremely dangerous and resulted in much greater property loss with the response Wood River was able to generate at the time. By the way, this fire occurred at the Wood River assistant chief's home. Again, this may also be an isolated example in regards to Wood River's response. However, the authors chose to highlight the fire in Hailey as a veiled effort to suggest their perception of Hailey's shortcoming versus the strength of Wood River.

In several of Mr. Kauffman's recent articles, he has referenced Wood River full-time status supported by paid-call personnel. We are also all aware that Wood River provides paramedic-level medical response and ambulance transport, which Hailey does not. It should be made clear that whenever a Wood River ambulance is dispatched on a call, those two or three full-time, on-duty personnel are with that ambulance and Wood River then becomes a department staffed with volunteers, just like the Hailey and Bellevue departments. More importantly, the authors continue to draw a distinction between the "professional firefighters" and the volunteers. To my knowledge, the professionals and volunteers receive the same training together, and, oh by the way, does the fire know the difference between a professional and a volunteer? The distinction is not only ludicrous, it is insulting. I agree with and appreciate Chief Mike Elle's characterization that the Ketchum Fire department is "... a volunteer fire department supported by a full-time staff." Wood River is no different, though they don't seem to embrace that concept.

The authors reference the failed bond request by the city of Hailey to fund a new fire station in Woodside. They say that both before and after the election, calls for consolidation were commonly heard in Hailey. They also mention the open-house information session held at the department regarding the upcoming bond vote. Let's be clear on a couple of things:

· The "calls for consolidation" were made by Wood River personnel and their advocates. The meeting at the Hailey department, while intended as a public information forum for all concerned voters, was attended nearly exclusively by Wood River personnel, to include their assistant chief and on-duty staff—in uniform—who effectively filled the room and manipulated the discussion. The "heated tone" mentioned in the article emanated from angry Wood River personnel who voiced their vehement opposition to Hailey's fire station bond. Wood River personnel even went so far as to accuse the Hailey chief and assistant chief of deception and dishonesty.

The article references comments made by Woodside resident Anne Elliot. It fails to mention that Ms. Elliot is the mother of a Wood River firefighter. The campaign to defeat the Hailey bond issue for a new fire station was spearheaded largely by Wood River personnel and their advocates. One need only look at the various land-use and development issues underway in the south county to immediately understand why Wood River is racing to take over fire protection in Hailey and Bellevue. They are rapidly losing their life blood—taxable property base. They may be the "Big Dogs" right now, as the Mountain Express characterizes them, but it appears the day is coming quickly when they may be too big to feed. A little research reveals that in this country, fire districts are not absorbing municipal departments; it is quite the opposite. Following the model of the Ketchum Fire Department and Ketchum Rural Fire Protection District, maybe the scenario we are driving toward is Hailey Fire Department managing Hailey Rural Fire Protection District?

Consolidation of fire protection service may indeed be a good thing for the people of Blaine County. However, misrepresentation, hostile conspiratorial politics and bad propaganda are not the components of a successful transition.

Editor's note:

The Mountain Express stands by the reporting in the series called "State of Emergency?" The three news stories do not endorse consolidation of fire services in the southern Wood River Valley. They presented facts about the state of services, with the intention that readers would make their own informed conclusions.

As for the editorial, that was written by the newspaper's editorial board, which operates separately from the newsroom. Editorials, by nature, take a position on one or more issues.

In addition, several points should be clarified:

· When the Express interviewed Hailey Fire Chief Mike Chapman about the fire that took place on Feb. 4, Chapman did not mention that the department had known it would be shorthanded.

· In regards to the incident that took place on Broadford Road on Jan. 7, records indicate that Wood River responded first and had a total of 24 firefighters on scene. Hailey had nine.

· At no point did the authors highlight a difference in training or skill level between volunteers and professional firefighters. The point was made that Wood River has a greater number of full-time personnel, who, by the nature of their job, are considered "professional."

· Reporter Jason Kauffman was in attendance at the open house meeting in question. He can attest that the meeting was not "attended nearly exclusively by WRFR personnel" and calls for consolidation were not limited to those personnel.

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