East Jefferson County makes history hiring battalion chiefs

New fire chief to implement Sept. 1

Laura Jean Schneider
ljschneider@ptleader.com
Posted 9/2/21

 

 

By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, East Jefferson Fire Rescue Chief Bret Black will have been serving the county for a year.

And as part of his plan for the future of …

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East Jefferson County makes history hiring battalion chiefs

New fire chief to implement Sept. 1

Posted

By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, East Jefferson Fire Rescue Chief Bret Black will have been serving the county for a year.

And as part of his plan for the future of firefighting in Jefferson County, Black’s proud to announce that starting Sept. 1, three personnel are being promoted to battalion chief.

Jason MacDonald, Justin Clouse, and Justin Fletcher are being promoted internally to the first-ever battalion chiefs in Jefferson County history. Some of the responsibilities the three new battalion chiefs will take on include emergency response command, control of significant incidents, project management, shift training, grant development, and data analysis.

UNICORN DISTRICT

A fire district, Black explained, has the distinction of being its own governing agency. East Jefferson County is known as Jefferson County Fire District 1, and  covers Port Townsend and the unincorporated communities of Cape George, Chimacum, Irondale, Kala Point, Marrowstone Island, and Port Hadlock. It’s the largest district of six in the county, covering 65 square miles.

“This [district] is the unicorn of East Jefferson,” he said. “People in our ranks want to see and feel an engagement.”

He is hopeful that the community-driven strategic plan he’s implementing will result in a strong community network that’s taking the long view on fire prevention.

While Black is relatively new to the area, he’s an old hand at fighting fires. What began as a volunteer position in Marin County, California turned into his full-time career, and the new fire chief brings decades of experience and an upbeat outlook to the local fire district.

Black was drawn to this community by the unique workforce. 

“Ninety-five percent of our firefighters live in this community,” the chief said, adding that in other places he’s worked, in-county firefighters were the exception.

WORKING TOGETHER

Very few fire districts have a combination workforce, Black added.

District 1 has “more volunteers than career members,” he said, “and 95 percent of our full-time career members used to volunteer.”

Jefferson County has a century-old tradition of volunteer firefighting, and the job requirements for paid staff and volunteers remain the same.

Volunteer resident firefighter requirements include a successful completion of the Washington State Fire Training Academy, an EMT class, a vehicle operations and driving program, and on-the-job application of skills. While a blazing building might be the image most commonly associated with a firefighter, that scenario is actually a minute component of what District 1 employees and volunteers actually do. Just 1.4 percent of the annual average of 4,500 calls are about structure fires; that’s about 45 to 50 buildings per year.

In the meantime, there’s a plethora of calls that qualify as “high risk, high frequency,” like car accidents, that keep staff busy.

In East Jefferson County, about eight of 10 calls require an emergency medical response. And due to the highly specialized training firefighters undergo, they are often first responders.

CLIMBING THE LADDER

The minimum number of staff on duty daily at District 1 is eight; the recommended number is 16.

“Rank compression” is the official term to describe the over-taxing of the firefighter crew. The fire chief described the current situation as an intermeshing of duties that are difficult to balance.

Being short-staffed has disadvantages other than the obvious lack of available hands, he said. It requires folks with extensive training, like Black, to go out on calls when his experience is best used to help implement strategic management and planning. (Currently the consulting firm Citygate Associates is helping draft a standards of cover document for the district. This is the first time the district has had a strategic plan.)

In terms of management, some key individuals in the traditional chain have been missing since the inception of the original fire department 149 years ago: battalion chiefs.

Implementing the three chiefs will help meet state and national standards of incident management, Black said. That means a safer Jefferson County for everyone. Also being promoted internally this week to lieutenant status are Caton White, Rick Martin, and Curtis Sanders.

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