Unalaska's Volunteer Firefighters Call For Independent Division, But Council Remains Undecided

Oct 26, 2017

The Unalaska Department of Public Safety includes the police force and fire division.
Credit Berett Wilber/KUCB

Despite months of debate, the fate of Unalaska’s fire division is far from decided.

The Unalaska City Council showed no consensus Tuesday, when city officials proposed restructuring the Department of Public Safety to put fire on equal footing with police.  

Right now, the fire chief reports to Mike Holman, police chief and director of public safety, rather than having a direct line to the city manager. He also needs Holman’s approval on his budget.

That system is not working, according to volunteer firefighter Damian Lopez-Plancarte.

“Anyone who thinks their fire department is completely capable of responding to any emergency is blissfully unaware,” he said.

Lopez-Plancarte testified before the council, along with a handful of other current and former volunteers. They say the fire division is understaffed, underfunded, and working with faulty equipment.

On top of that, only four active firefighters are certified to enter a burning building.

“That isn’t even enough for the ‘two in, two out’ rule that’s set in place by the National Fire Protection Association," said Lopez-Plancarte. "So you could be inside your house and we can’t even go in. Sure, we have 24 volunteers, but none of us are trained.”

Councilor Dave Gregory said that needs to change. The former fire chief supports making the fire division independent and master of its own budget.

“The fire chief has got to have the autonomy to run his own department," said Gregory. "Going through the [public safety] director and then the city manager is not the way to do that. He has got to be able to go to the chief executive of the city.”

While Gregory staked out a strong position, the rest of the council was noncommittal. Some proposed small tweaks to the department’s hierarchy, while others suggested no change was really necessary.

Councilor Shari Coleman said Public Safety has to make the decision itself. She told volunteers who appealed to the council: “I think you’re barking up the wrong tree here.”

Holman and new fire chief Arlie Colvin have declined to take public stances on how they think the department should be structured.

Holman also denied accusations that fire officials have been pressured to stay silent on the topic.

City councilors said they’ll continue the discussion at a future meeting.