Ninilchik Fire Chief David Bear moves the fire truck out of the new Ninilchik Emergency Services building on Aug. 9, 2014, to make room for visitors to the open house of the new NES building. (Homer News file photo)

Ninilchik Fire Chief David Bear moves the fire truck out of the new Ninilchik Emergency Services building on Aug. 9, 2014, to make room for visitors to the open house of the new NES building. (Homer News file photo)

Ninilchik Emergency Services chief, assistant chief reinstated

Former board has resigned and been replaced, and department is back to normal staffing

The governing board of Ninilchik’s nonprofit, volunteer fire department has resigned and been replaced after the small fishing community balked at that board’s decision to fire the department’s chief and assistant chief in the name of restructuring the organization.

Life moves slow in small Alaska towns, but not when getting a response to a 911 call is on the line. Between a volatile community town hall held Thursday, Feb. 6, during which a man collapsed and had to be taken to the hospital and residents demanded answers, and an emergency board meeting scheduled for the following Monday, every member of the Ninilchik Emergency Services Board of Directors stepped down. They have been replaced by seven community members who have formed an interim board with the goals of righting the ship that is the department and providing the public with more transparency.

One of the first acts of the new board at their first meeting Monday night, according to new President Donnie Schwendeman, was to reinstate Chief Dave Bear, who had been terminated by the previous board last Tuesday along with volunteer department member Grace Huhndorf. Bear is the only paid employee. Huhndorf has officially been recognized by the new board as an assistant chief and the department is back up to its full contingent of responders going out on medical and fire calls.

The problem

The previous board of directors had sought to halt services at Ninilchik Emergency Services after firing Bear and Huhndorf, which would have effectively shut down all responses to calls for help. Services were never actually stopped, though, and the department was never shut down. At the Feb. 6 town hall, former Board President Darrell Williams told the public that after a conversation between him and Bear following Bear’s termination, it was decided that he would be allowed to stay and assist a limited crew of volunteers to continue responding to calls in Ninilchik.

Williams and other former board members said the terminations were linked to the fact that the board was in the process of restructuring the fire department to be employee based, rather than volunteer based. They were giving volunteers the option to reapply as paid staff members, Williams said.

Residents at the town hall failed to see why this change necessitated firing Bear and Huhndorf and continuously questioned Williams and the other board members. They declined to give specific reasons for the terminations, citing privacy concerns.

Many at the town hall took issue with the previous board’s decision to allow a skeleton crew to continue responding to medical and fire calls. Captain Troy Laky explained at the meeting that, at that time, the department had enough qualified people to respond to a fire, but not to actually fight it. Bear and Huhndorf are also the department’s only medics trained to the EMT3 level, which allows them to provide advanced life saving measures (anything that requires more than basic medical care).

Community members worried that limiting the crew of responders was a danger to the public. In an unfortunate illustration of that point, about two and a half hours into the meeting, a man sitting at the back of the room had a medical emergency and had to be taken to the hospital. Within seconds he was surrounded by the group of volunteer emergency medical technicians who were already in the room and there to attend the town hall.

Laky confirmed that the medical emergency required someone with advanced life support training. Bear left the building to attend to the man having the medical emergency. Laky explained that, if the department were to have gotten another call from someone requiring advanced life support before Bear returned, they would have had no one qualified to respond.

Ninilchik Emergency Services is not an official fire and medical response service area within the Kenai Peninsula Borough, and it’s the only one like that on the peninsula.

Other fire departments with service areas, including Central Emergency Services, Anchor Point Fire and Emergency Services, and Kachemak Emergency Services, are all funded through property taxes on land and structures within the service areas. People living in those regions voted to establish the service areas, voted on what to make the mill rates, and vote for the board members who oversee those service areas.

Ninilchik Emergency Services is a 501(C)3 private nonprofit. According to the bylaws under the previous board, board members were self appointed. Many people gathered at the Feb. 6 town hall took issue with this and called for more transparency and accountability to local residents.

At that meeting, Williams lamented that so few people have come to the board’s meetings in the past to give input.

A power shift

The former board of directors held a board meeting on Sunday, Feb. 9, which Schwendeman said was highly attended. A Concerned Citizens Committee to address the situation at the department and advocate for transparency had been formed on Sunday, and the previous board was slated to meet with that committee on Monday, Schwendeman said.

“They never had a chance to meet with the board,” he said. “Instead the board did what they did, and resigned.”

A transition then took place to vote interim board members in to replace the outgoing ones. On Monday, the former board members sequentially resigned and voted in new members or filled vacant positions until a new board was seated. Former board member Steve Vanek was particularly helpful in helping the interim board members transition in, Schwendeman said. After the bylaws, keys, paperwork and other relevant materials were turned over to the new board, its members voted to reinstate Bear and Huhndorf effective immediately, according to the meeting minutes. Montana Landess, a volunteer responder who had resigned after his superiors were terminated, was also added back into the department.

Schwendeman and other members of the board along with Huhndorf and Bear spoke to the Homer News during a break in another board meeting Tuesday, Feb. 11 at the fire station in Ninilchik. The interim board has halted the previous board’s plan to restructure the department, Schwendeman said.

The new board’s focus is on submitting updated paperwork to the State of Alaska reflecting its leadership change, maintaining fire and EMS service to Ninilchik, and providing information and answers to the public.

The board’s bylaws are not available online, but will be posted at an upcoming open house that was scheduled for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the fire station in Ninilchik. Minutes from the board’s meetings so far will also be posted and available for the public to look at.

This open house was a chance for residents to come meet the interim board members and to ask questions about the status of the station and the path forward. First responders from the department will also be there.

“The goal of this board is to be more inclusive,” Schwendeman said. “We want to allow the community an opportunity to be involved. That was a huge outcry from the community.”

One thing the new board will discuss going forward is how to give more weight to community members who donate to the department through the nonprofit. The previous board did not recognize donors as members, and figuring out what membership could potentially look like is something the interim board will explore, Schwendeman said.

Schwendeman praised the members of the former board for listening to the concerns of Ninilchik residents and resigning.

Huhndorf said Tuesday night that she’s pleased and humbled by the support the community has given to Ninilchik Emergency Services.

“To see all of these people come forward and sacrifice their time and commit to making this organization as awesome as I think it is, and to continue that … excellent,” she said of the interim board members.

In an emailed statement, Bear, too, echoed the gratification for the Ninilchik community and how much it supports the responders.

“The immediate result and the crucial result for me is that we have returned to fully operational status,” Bear wrote. “Reinstatement of Assistant Chief Huhndorf and myself to our previous positions will allow us to keep serving this wonderful community to the best of our abilities. I would like to thank the previous board and especially long serving former board president Steve Vanek, for their help in transitioning the current interim board into a position to successfully move forward.”

Moving forward

Ninilchik Emergency Services is in a unique position as the only service on the peninsula that is not an official service area under the purview of the borough. Borough service areas have board members appointed through voting at the ballot box and get their funds through property taxes.

In the absence of that system, Ninilchik Emergency Services has operated with a board of directors overseeing a private nonprofit. Several people at the Feb. 6 town hall suggested that Ninilchik residents attempt to form an official service area under the borough.

The steps that would need to be taken in order for that to happen are:

1) A member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly would have to write and sponsor an ordinance proposing that the service area, supported by property taxes, be created.

2) That ordinance would be voted on by the assembly.

3) If passed at the assembly level, the question of whether to create the service area would go on the ballot for the next October general election.

4) Residents who lived within the suggested boundaries of the service area would then vote on whether or not they wanted it.

Ninilchik residents could vote to make their own fire and EMS service area, or, as a few people at the meeting suggested, they could merge with the existing Anchor Point Fire and Emergency Service Area. This would create one large service area with access to a larger tax base.

One of the town hall attendees, Chad Harris, stuck his hand in the air and waited to be called on. “Who wants to go borough?” he asked the room, to cheers and applause. “And who wants to stay with this s***?”

A combined service area would draw funding through a mill rate set on property taxes for those living in both Anchor Point and Ninilchik as well as land or commercial properties, including oil and gas wells. Several people at the town hall said they would not mind paying a mill rate in order to ensure fire and medical response coverage.

The question of whether to make an official service area in Ninilchik was put on the ballot on the peninsula a few decades ago but was voted down.

The interim board for Ninilchik Emergency Services will not be involved in looking into creating an official service area, Schwendeman said. “We’re not … in favor or opposed to it,” he said. “We just know that it’s a possibility and we’re open minded.”

Brenda Ahlbeg, Community and Fiscal Projects manager for the borough, was present at last week’s town hall to provide information on borough procedures and processes. She said after the meeting that plans are in the works to schedule an official, borough-sponsored public information meeting to inform the communities of Anchor Point and Ninilchik about what creating an official, combined service area would mean. This would be the first step in the process, she told people at the town hall.

Reach Megan Pacer at mapacer@homernews.com.

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