Is it time for Unalaska’s firefighters to have their own department — separate from the police force? Or should both divisions continue living under the consolidated Department of Public Safety?
Those questions sparked heated discussion at Tuesday's City Council meeting.
“The fire department is in crisis mode now, and it’s been that way for years," said City Councilor Dave Gregory.
Gregory is a former fire chief, who worked in the division for 24 years. He said fire often takes a backseat to the police force under the current department structure.
Fire officials report to the director of public safety rather than having a direct line to the city manager. The fire chief also oversees dispatchers, who route calls for fire, police, and emergency medicine.
“Why do you think fire departments don’t like combined departments? They don’t like the work from the police chief," said Gregory. "I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.”
Several councilors argued that creating an independent fire department would help with stability. The division has gone without a fire chief for about a year and suffered a decline in volunteer participation.
But City Manager Dave Martinson said separating police and fire would require several costly changes. He said an independent fire department would need more staff, new equipment, and possibly its own facility to comply with state security regulations.
Councilor Rachelle Hatfield disagreed. She said the two departments should still work side-by-side.
“Some people are under the understanding that the separation is literally cutting the department in half — having fire on this end, having police on this end, and not letting the two commingle together. That’s not what we’re talking about," she said. "We’re talking about having a fire chief who solely takes care of fire issues and reports to the city manager.”
It’s unclear if separation would actually solve the fire division’s problems, according to volunteer Shari Coleman. She told councilors that department structure isn’t the issue.
“Volunteerism may be down, but it’s rebuilding," said Coleman. "That’s the nature of having a volunteer service. It going to have its ups and downs.”
The City Council will continue discussing the Department of Public Safety at a future meeting. Councilors asked Martinson to schedule a special work session soon.
Correction 6/15/17: This story previously stated the fire division is responsible for dispatch work. The fire chief is actually responsible for supervising dispatchers, and the story has been updated.