Key Peninsula Fire Department Chief Dustin Morrow has applied for the job of chief at Central Pierce Fire & Rescue in Puyallup, the largest fire district in the county. He advanced to the last round of competition as one of two finalists at a meeting of the Central Pierce fire commissioners Sept. 8, viewable on the CPFR District YouTube channel.
Morrow informed staff of his employment status later that week and of the possibility of a collaboration between the two fire districts that could include him being the chief for both.
He has been transparent with the KPFD commissioners and kept Chairman Stan Moffett apprised every step of the way, he said. “I’ve been talking to Central Pierce too to make sure they understand that I’m not willing to leave District 16 hanging.”
A meeting is scheduled between the two fire commissioner board chairs together with the retiring CPFR Chief Dan Olson and Chief Morrow Oct. 15 to discuss the possibilities for collaboration.
“There is a huge conversation in the county that’s about breaking down the walls, being more cooperative, and sharing resources,” Morrow said.
The district already has an arrangement with Central Pierce for IT-related work and administrative tasks. Merging districts would require voter approval but the commissioners could contract management of the department to be centralized in another fire district. “That is something that can occur via board action,” Morrow said.
“There is no conversation in play about operationally merging or giving away our fire department,” he said.
Morrow came to KPFD April 1, 2019. He told KP News his early efforts were about securing a level of stability to allow analysis of what the future might hold for the department.
“I was really honest with this board on my original assessment of where this place could go,” he said. “I always felt we were going to discover whether we were going to be a standalone organization or had to get tucked into another organization in one form or another.
“It’s really easy for me to articulate that we don’t have an adequate depth of resources throughout the organization we need,” Morrow said. He cited back-to-back calls, short-staffed units compared to industry standards, the lack of overall administrative support needed for a robust training environment, and the EMS environment the department needs.
At the regular KPFD 16 fire commission meeting Sept. 14, Morrow reiterated that he had no contingent or conditional job offer from Central Pierce and no decision had been made by them or by him about the move or a new working arrangement.
“What if any relationship could be had between Central Pierce and District 16 and/or others in the county that would allow this policy group to potentially make a decision that may be something different than just replacing the fire chief as the standard process?” Morrow asked. “Is there an alternate way for us to provide emergency services within our community that overall may be better than what we do today, maybe at the same or less cost than we do today? It’s a continued process of discovery and I happen to be in the middle of it, not by design or choice, but it’s a collision of timing and events.”
During Morrow’s tenure, the fire district received support from KP voters three times: a permanent EMS levy approved by 63%; renewal of an existing maintenance and operation levy with 65% approval; and most recently a 6-year fire levy lid lift approved by 62%.
At the Sept. 14 meeting, Volunteer Lt. Dave Vezanni said he didn’t remember Morrow talking about a merger or expressing interest in employment at Central Pierce during the recent campaign.
“During the levy it was, ‘If you pass this, we’ll have sufficient money to move us forward,’ to now (when) that’s not enough money so we have to look at other alternatives,” Vezanni said. “That’s only 30 days ago we had the election.”
Commission Chair Stan Moffett said the board was going to look at the long term, beyond the next five years to consider the next 10 or 15 years at KPFD 16.
“Are we going to be able to continue to go back to our constituents and continue to ask for more and more money in order to provide the services we do?” he asked. “The responsibility that we owe the citizens of this peninsula is to look at every different possibility and facet.”
Vezanni said that although the 10-year financial plan was rolled out in January to the commissioners, “it seems like the last eight days is the only time I’ve ever heard that we are in a financial situation where we may not be able to provide the service we want. What happened in the eight months prior to this?”
Vezanni then asked each commissioner to state their position on having a full-time fire chief 100% employed by and focused on KPFD, adding, “If the Chief does accept the job at Central Pierce, we need to put all the capital improvement projects and investments on hold so that the next chief can pursue his vision and not someone else’s,” including two substantial real estate transactions (See “Voters Approve 6-Year Fire Levy Lid Lift” KP News, Sept. 2021).
“I cannot make that commitment to you because I don’t have all the information and you’re talking about something that hasn’t occurred yet,” Moffett said. “And when it does occur, I can give you my commitment that I will do everything in my power to ensure that we provide the highest level of service to the citizens on this peninsula.”
Commissioner Keith Davies said the board is open-minded to options and that consolidation is the way of the future. “It’s what’s happening. It’s going to continue to get more and more difficult for the smaller departments to survive.”
Commissioner Randy Takehara agreed that it’s too early to make a decision and wants to keep an open mind. “I think it’s best for our citizens not to be so steadfast, ‘We’ve got to have a chief right away.’ As I understand it Chief Olson is not retiring until the end of December, I think.”
Commissioner Frank Grubaugh reiterated there has never been any discussion of a merger with another fire district. “We’ve talked about consortiums … we work with other districts to pool our money and we buy at the best rates. ... As the others have said, the board is intent on doing what’s best for the people. To find out what’s best we have to look at all the alternatives.”
Commissioner Shawn Jensen added, “One of the biggest things for me when we hired the chief, and this is just me speaking personally, is looking for somebody that was committed to our community. So, that’s what I’m struggling with right now, is the potential for our chief to depart.
“What happens after that, we don’t know.”
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