As DPS Debate Continues, Thomas Recommends Creating Standalone Fire Department

Jul 25, 2018

City Manager Thomas E. Thomas has recommended Unalaska split its Department of Public Safety (pictured) to create a standalone fire department. The proposal was met Tuesday with a variety of support, criticism, and questions.
Credit Berett Wilber/KUCB

Unalaska should split its Department of Public Safety to create a standalone fire department separate from the police force.

At least, that's the recommendation City Manager Thomas E. Thomas made to the City Council on Tuesday, hoping to settle a longstanding debate over how to improve retention and morale.

Thomas said putting the fire chief on equal footing with the police chief will be "critical" for the future success of the fire division — and his ability to oversee it.

"I know there will be concern about going into the unknown," he said. "I can only assure you that I've been there and I have the skill set to navigate us through this transition."

Currently, the fire chief reports to the director of public safety, who also holds the title of police chief. Thomas' proposal would give the fire chief a direct line to the city manager and control over her own budget.

The recommendation was met with a wide variety of support, criticism, and questions from the council, which will make the final decision.

Councilor Dave Gregory, a former fire chief, called it a good plan.

"Ninety-nine percent of the fire departments in this country are organized so that the fire chief answers to the city manager," said Gregory. "Just because we've had this crazy hybrid system for all these years, people are resistant to change. But I think we need to give the prestige and recognition to the fire department."

Councilor Shari Coleman, however, said Public Safety is already serving the community well under its current structure.

The volunteer firefighter also argued that an overhaul would be expensive, especially if it's determined that fire needs its own building.

"It's not just about changing somebody's logo," said Coleman. "It has huge financial implications, and this is taxpayer money that we're talking about. I want to see a really good reason to change, and to me, stroking somebody's ego is not a good reason."

Several firefighters have expressed support for separation. But overall, Public Safety employees — from corrections and police to fire and administration— have made a slew of different suggestions. 

Acting Public Safety Director Jennifer Shockley has declined to comment on potential restructuring, as has Fire Chief Ramona Thompson.

Despite no broad public consensus, Councilors Gregory, James Fitch, Roger Rowland, and Alejandro "Bong" Tungul and Mayor Frank Kelty expressed some level of support for the city manager or his proposal.

That suggests the council could approve a standalone fire department, if the issue comes to a vote. The council took no action on Tuesday, and it remains unclear when they'll take up the matter again.