The Key Peninsula Fire Department experienced several significant changes at the end of 2021.
Fire Chief Dustin Morrow left to become chief at Central Pierce Fire & Rescue Dec. 1; his interim successor, Assistant Fire Chief Hal Wolverton, was placed on paid administrative leave Dec. 14 after an employee complaint concerning discrimination; Division Chief Jason Learned was appointed to replace him the next day with Captain Robert Bosch taking over Learned’s position; and the department closed on the last of $2.125 million worth of property purchases in Key Center with an eye toward building a new headquarters.
Fire Commission Chair Stan Moffett could offer no details on the substance of the complaint against Wolverton but said an investigation conducted by an outside attorney would begin immediately and “take as long as it takes.”
The board also voted Dec. 14 to start a search for a new chief to succeed Morrow instead of entering an interlocal agency agreement with Central Pierce that could have allowed Morrow to continue his administrative duties for KPFD. Moffett said he expects to have a new chief in place by June 1.
“I don’t have any aspirations to be a fire chief,” Learned said. “But that’s where I find myself right now.”
Learned, 45, is the district’s sole division chief and responsible for training and medical services, including overseeing EMS calls and the status of ambulances and medical supplies. He started in the fire service with KPFD in 2007 as a firefighter and paramedic after four years in the U.S. Coast Guard driving motor lifeboats, then working for a private ambulance company and putting himself through medic school. He made lieutenant in 2014, battalion chief in 2018 and division chief in 2020.
“There’s a lot more to this job than I think I ever gave credit to,” he said. “Everybody has been great — the battalion chiefs, the captains. A lot of the operational stuff has been pushed down to a lower level to get done, to take that stuff off my plate while we’re moving forward to get other large scale projects down the road.”
Learned’s division chief duties were temporarily assigned to Captain, now Interim Division Chief, Robert Bosch, who had been stationed in Wauna until Dec. 13.
“Literally that Monday before (Wolverton was put on leave), I started working days, for light duty on medical leave,” Bosch said. “We’re already short-staffed on shift and I’m qualified to take the temporary promotion, so to pull another person off the shift to do it didn’t make sense.”
Bosch, 55, is nearly a lifelong KP resident who joined the department as a volunteer in 1984. He was sent to fire academy and put himself through medic school before being hired as a firefighter paramedic in 1991.
“I am just implementing the programs that Jason (Learned) started; he put a bunch of balls in the air like a juggler and I’m just trying to keep them up in the air until he gets back,” Bosch said. “I’m onboarding new recruits, showing them how we do things, doing policy reviews, getting them ready for fire academy, and I also manage the EMS medical supplies.”
Those recruits should be on the line by June.
Like Learned, Bosch said he is not interested in the top job.
“I thought I could be a fire chief when Chief Morrow got hired, but when I watched what he was doing as chief I said, ‘Nope, not for me.’ ” Bosch said. “He had vision and he knew how to move chess pieces in a way that I hadn’t even thought of.”
“We’re immediately starting another hiring process because we didn’t get the full complement that we wanted,” Learned said. “The goal was to hire seven; we’ve hired four for sure, maybe five. We’re looking to open up a job posting for a lateral firefighter paramedic to get some applicants that can be put to work right away rather than having to go through three months of academy.”
Morrow, now in the top job at Central Pierce, has been supportive.
“We’re both very busy, but he has been a good resource for me,” Learned said. “I’ve reached out to some other chiefs in the area; they’ve all been very welcoming.”
Learned also acknowledged there have been difficulties within the ranks adapting to the changes, including the investigation that necessitated putting Wolverton on leave.
“Overall, I think we’re going strong,” Learned said. “There are some stressors that have been added to this with the change in the leadership multiple times over a short period of time; it just has everybody kind of on edge. We’ve got staffing issues that we’re facing here in the next four months that we’re getting through. I would say that even given all that, everyone has stepped up in the face of adversity, we’ve just got a rocky path in front of us for a short period of time.”
“Hal (Wolverton) being put on leave caught everyone off guard; I was stunned,” Bosch said. “There are a lot of reasons someone might be investigated and being put on admin leave is a smart, clean way to do it. I’m not stunned that they did it — I don’t know why they did nor should I — I was stunned that it happened because I didn’t know there was an issue.”
“As a person who has gone through a discipline process that was fairly public and getting my job back and finding a way through, I trust the process 100%,” he said (See “KPFD Promotes Firefighter/Paramedic Bosch to Lieutenant for a Second Time,” KP News, April 2017).
In an email to KP News, Lt. Doug Gelsleichter, president of the Key Peninsula Professional Firefighters union, wrote: “Morale is taking quite a hit on the front lines. Not only because of the turmoil created by the recent administration changes, but also because of staffing challenges, mostly due to COVID-19, injuries, medical leave, administrative leave. We are short staffed, which is creating a lot of overtime. There really is no one to blame, it is just a culmination of events that have come to a head. We are optimistic that relief is coming soon.”
KPFD Executive Assistant Christina Bosch confirmed the increase in overtime. “The original 2021 budgeted overtime was $260,000,” she said. “In April, we increased the budget to $471,500, but soon realized that this would not be enough and increased it again to $564,700. We ended 2021 with overtime expenditures at $564,500.”
KP News spoke to other firefighters about KPFD on condition of anonymity. One said, “Chief Morrow was probably the best fire chief that I worked for, but I’m not sad that he’s gone. That’s part of life; opportunities happen, you move on.”
Another said, “There’s a lot of uneasiness in the firehouse. Whenever you take an organization and you strip it of its leadership, you can’t help but be knocked back and bewildered. I fully believe that Chief Wolverton will be vindicated, and his name restored. He’s served the organization with his whole heart and soul.”
A different firefighter said, “If you’re new here, you’re probably not in Wolverton’s camp; if you’re a long-term person, you are. The reason I say that is he went from being assistant chief responsible for operations to dealing with the fleet, and that was his only responsibility as assistant chief under Morrow. So, all the new guys, all they saw was the guy who takes the apparatus, drives them to the shop, tells you when they’re ready, stuff like that. They don’t know his capabilities and his experience, which is unfortunate.”
Public Information Officer Anne Nesbit said, “The bottom line is we all have jobs to do, which is the focus. Continued uninterrupted service to our community is always what’s most important.”
Another firefighter said, “We have a motto in the fire service: ‘If it was easy, anybody could do it.’ ”
Editor’s note: In our January edition, Assistant Fire Chief Hal Wolverton was incorrectly described as having been suspended. He was put on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an independent investigation. We regret the error.
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