Firefighters. audit: ‘You have a lot of risks here’

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By Melinda Munson

The Skagway Fire Department audit was officially approved by the Borough Assembly on December 16. The 201-page document lists 109 recommendations, 25 of which are classified as “urgent or immediate” with “potential threat to life”. According to Acting Chief Emily Rauscher, 18 of Priority 1 actions have been completed so far.

When Chief Craig Haigh, principal consultant for McGrath Consulting Group, began the audit, the situation was dire.

“…In early August, when work on this audit began, the department had a total of 11 emergency responders (paid and volunteer combined), of which only seven were active; no active member was a certified firefighter; there were three active emergency medical technicians and there was no fire chief” (p. 11).

The borough named Rauscher, then director of EMS and the fire department’s only remaining full-time employee, as acting fire chief. The decision was one of three options recommended by the audit.

“This individual is known, respected and a longtime member of the community who has close family ties to Skagway,” the report said in reference to Rauscher.

“She has a drive and a passion for the department and the borough and seems ready to work hard to rebuild the department. She has excellent administrative skills and a solid background in emergency medical services. Its obvious disadvantage is the lack of operational training on the range as well as experience in tactical incident command” (page 14).

The municipality hired four people for temporary fire/paramedic positions and began recruiting and training community volunteers.

According to Borough Superintendent Brad Ryan, interviews for the fire chief will begin in February. The application period is open until it is filled. Ryan serves on the hiring committee along with Mayor Andrew Cremata and Assemblyman Sam Bass, chair of the Public Safety Committee. Ryan hopes to add a fourth member with firefighting expertise.

In his audit presentation, Haigh highlighted the high level of risk that Skagway faces.

“Skagway has a greater need for multidisciplinary emergency preparedness than most major cities,” Haigh said. He listed potential hazards: the airport, cruise ships, marina, trains, outdoor recreation, landslides and flooding.

“There are very, very few communities that exist in our country today, other than maybe the big giants that have all of this, that need to be protected. And you’re doing it in a remote area where you can’t get timely help from anyone… And if you don’t provide those services, if something goes wrong in your attempt to provide those services, the world is going to know because Skagway is on the map. And it’s not going to be something that’s going to be a success. You have a lot of risk here,” he said.

Like most fire departments, the majority of Skagway’s calls are medical.

“I would say you’re an EMS agency going to a fire sometimes,” Haigh said. He noted that the EMS service had not been “culturally valued” in the past.

Haigh recommended scrapping “field promotions” and having clear guidelines on how and why individuals are promoted. He described an employee who seemed “embarrassed” to have been promoted because he felt he did not meet the qualifications. Haigh highlighted the need for better record keeping and stressed the need for a backup system in case the 911 communications center fails due to weather conditions or technical difficulties. He did not recommend a Dyea fire station, with the area accounting for just 2% of responses.

The report referred to communication between Ryan and former fire department personnel.

“There appears to be a general view that Skagway is a ‘sleepy little town’ with few risks/threats and hazards targeted,” the audit said. “The lack of frequent major incidents seems to have lulled members of the department into believing that a lack of preparedness is somehow acceptable. This cultural issue is extremely dangerous and puts the community at significant risk.

“Without a full understanding of both sides of the communication equation, a toxic culture has been created towards the manager by some fire department personnel. According to the principal consultant’s best assessment, this toxicity is misplaced and does not accurately reflect the real position of the manager” (page 34).

The audit cost $46,978 plus travel expenses and took four months. Ryan described the audit as a “guidance document”. The municipality can choose which elements it wishes to implement.

“As we grow, there will be other recommendations,” he said.

Rauscher confirmed that she had applied for the permanent position of fire chief. Paul Meyers, a former fleet manager and emergency responder who resigned from his full-time job with the fire department last August, officially resigned from the volunteer fire department in December. He sent his letter to 23 recipients.

“From now on, because of the leadership, I can no longer volunteer safely or in good conscience. I can’t or won’t work with someone who is underqualified thereby risking my life and safety,” he wrote.

Neither Ryan nor Rauscher would comment on Meyers’ letter.

“I’ve never seen the fire department so active since I’ve been here. People seem to be engaged,” Ryan said.

“(We) seem to be in a building phase and they are happy to be there,” he added.

The full audit is available at https://www.skagway.org/sites/default/files/fileattachments/borough_assembly/meeting/packets/46087/7b.1_skagway_fire_department_audit_november_2021_final_reduced.pdf.

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