The chief of Whatcom County’s largest fire district told staff this week he plans to resign in the midst of a labor impasse between firefighters and leadership.
Tensions flared in the district when a low-ranking departing firefighter, Joel Sellinger, stood up during a commissioners’ meeting April 16, and in a six-minute speech called for North Whatcom Fire and Rescue Chief Ron Anderson to be fired.
Sellinger, a former full-time District 4 firefighter now working for the Everett Fire Department, said Anderson had steered the department toward “dangerously low staffing levels brought on by imaginary fiscal problems.”
Many of Sellinger’s grievances — perceived understaffing at some stations, rampant rumors of layoffs, and a general “walking-on-eggshells culture” — were echoed by other firefighters at a private staff meeting between Anderson and employees late Wednesday, said Chuck Shipp, a firefighter and union representative with Local 106. The union also has been seeking raises for its firefighters, for the first time in five years. The district has about 100 firefighters, half of them career firefighters and half volunteers.
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By the end of the meeting, Anderson said he would tender his resignation Friday, May 1.
“Chief Anderson kind of manned up and said if you would rather I retire, then OK,” said Rich Bosman, a fire commissioner.
Anderson’s contract has a six-month grace period that could allow him to remain chief through the end of October, though it remains to be seen if he will stay. Bosman hopes Anderson will remain chief while administration searches for a successor.
“As commissioners, we feel that Ron has done well,” Bosman said.
He added, however, that between Anderson and other staff there were some “personality issues, just a lot of things that would take a lot of time to resolve.” He declined to go into detail.
Anderson, who started his firefighting career in Idaho in the 1970s, came out of retirement to move to Washington and helm North Whatcom Fire and Rescue in May 2012, after Chief Tom Fields retired. Firefighters with North Whatcom serve about 182 square miles, by far the largest fire service, by area, in the county. The mostly rural district runs along the border and covers Blaine, Birch Bay, the acreage around Lynden and, northeast of Bellingham, a not-quite triangular area known as District 4.
Four career firefighters in that district, which contracts out its fire service to North Whatcom, were handed layoff notices in 2013. Sellinger was one of them. That fall, firefighters from Station 12, on Britton Loop, went door to door explaining to voters that if a Emergency Medical Services levy were to pass, it would save their jobs.
The levy passed. The layoff notices, however, weren’t formally rescinded until months later because the chief, Sellinger said, wanted it to look like the jobs were still in jeopardy while leadership applied for a SAFER grant — federal money that can help fund firefighter staffing. The district didn’t get the grant. All four firefighters were never laid off, but all have since sought out and found other jobs.
Until recently, the fire station on Britton Loop had been staffed with three career firefighters around the clock. In March, it was staffed by two full-time firefighters about a third of the time.
Anderson spoke briefly over the phone with a reporter Thursday but said he was driving and would call back. He did not, and did not return another call to his cellphone around the end of the business day.
The fire district’s financial staff did not respond to calls inquiring about the chief’s salary.
LISTEN TO AUDIOClick here to listen to an audio recording
of firefighter Joel Sellinger's complaints against Chief Ron Anderson at an April 16 public meeting.