The Key Peninsula Fire District board of fire commissioners unexpectedly voted to put Assistant Fire Chief Hal Wolverton on paid administrative leave during its biweekly meeting Dec. 14.
After emerging from an executive session near the end of the meeting, Chair Stan Moffett said the commissioners had just received “discrimination complaints against” Wolverton and that he would be removed from duty immediately pending the outcome of an investigation.
Moffett stressed this was not a punitive action but part of a process just beginning. He also stressed there was no connection with the transition in leadership or chief search.
Division Chief Jason Learned was made the new interim chief Dec. 15. He has been with KPFD for 14 years and was promoted to division chief in August 2020. He had been responsible for training and medical services oversight, which went to Captain Robert Bosch.
Wolverton had been appointed interim chief Nov. 23 after Fire Chief Morrow resigned to take the top job at Central Pierce Fire & Rescue in Spanaway Dec. 1.
Wolverton served in the role previously between the resignation of Fire Chief Guy Allen and the arrival of Morrow, from January to April 2019. He has been with KPFD for 31 years and never been the subject of disciplinary action.
Earlier in the meeting, the board voted to begin a search for a new fire chief using The Prothman Company, the same executive search firm that found Morrow.
Instead of hiring a new chief, the fire commissioners had considered entering an interlocal agreement (ILA) with Central Pierce that could have allowed Morrow to continue his duties as chief for KPFD while also running the other district, as a potential cost-saving measure.
Moffett told KP News he could provide no details about the allegations against Wolverton but did say the investigation would be conducted by a third party and “take as long as it takes.” He also said it was “possible” that an ILA with Central Pierce and Morrow would be reconsidered.
“The fire service is a very expensive operation to run and as we progress it’s going to get more and more expensive,” Moffett told KP News before the meeting. “Administration is very, very costly … There’s no reason at all why we couldn’t go out and contract for administration from another district. That doesn’t mean that we’d be merging. That doesn’t mean we’d be consolidating.”
Immediately prior to his suspension, Wolverton told KP News, “No one should notice a change in the continuity of service just because we had a change in leadership. When you call 911, you will get a response. The boots on the ground are still doing their job. I want the crew to know that this was a sudden change for everybody, and they’ve got to know that we’re still going to move forward.”
Three fire stations on the KP are staffed 24/7, he said: there are two-person medic crews at Wauna and Longbranch, and an engine crew of two to four firefighters in Home together with a battalion chief. Volunteers respond to the stations in Key Center and at Four Corners to staff extra engines or water tenders as needed.
“Our medical calls are still 80% to 90% of our calls, so those medic units go out first and then if there’s a fire, they go with the engine,” said Public Information Officer Anne Nesbit. “Right now, 44 (Wauna) is the busiest station. The engine is at Home because it’s kind of in the middle of the peninsula, and it’s mostly manpower support; they’ll go to backup the medic unit.”
Wolverton had also been taking over a hiring process begun by Morrow, bringing on five new career personnel in January.
“We started with seven but two didn’t make the cut, so that dropped us down to five,” Wolverton said. “Our plan is in February to start another hiring process for at least another two.”
Expanding the staff will not mean expanding services but filling holes in the schedule. “This is geared for relief for the line that we have now to address some overtime issues,” Nesbit said. “Right now, we’re not going to deploy any new rigs, it’s just another person on the shift.”
The new hires include two current KP firefighter volunteers, she said.
“We’re going to start another hiring process as soon as we can” to fill the last two positions, Wolverton said. “I just wanted to let the dust settle a little bit here. I’ve got a lot going on before we can think about starting another process.” >
The department will also be getting three new ambulances starting in January that should be in service by the end of February. They will replace three rigs that will be sold “basically for salvage,” Nesbit said.
Wolverton said he would not apply for the top job.
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