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Despite recent incidents, Bellingham officials remain confident in fire, police agencies

Bellingham’s mayor is confident that its emergency services can keep the public’s trust

The Bellingham Fire Department disclosed that a ranking officer resigned and another retired in the wake of “serious misconduct”. The July incident involved a deceased patient’s body being used for an unauthorized training exercise.
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The Bellingham Fire Department disclosed that a ranking officer resigned and another retired in the wake of “serious misconduct”. The July incident involved a deceased patient’s body being used for an unauthorized training exercise.

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Bellingham city officials are confident that its emergency services can keep the public’s trust in the wake of several incidents involving first responders.

The Bellingham Fire Department disclosed on Monday that a ranking officer resigned and another retired in the wake of “serious misconduct” regarding a late July incident in which a deceased patient’s body was used for an unauthorized training exercise.

The fire officers had more than 50 years combined service.

Also on Monday, former Bellingham Police officer Sukhdev Singh Dhaliwal was convicted of misdemeanor assault stemming from an October 2017 off-duty attack on two men, making him one of three police officers in two years to be fired or resign while facing criminal charges.

“I was deeply affected and saddened,” City Council member April Barker said about the fire department in an interview with The Herald Tuesday. “This was a gross error in judgment. I was surprised at the level that it reached, with so many people being involved.”

A dozen people were present or participated in multiple intubations of the body at the Broadway Street station, city officials said — including supervisory officers, firefighters and other personnel.

A week passed before Fire Department administrators learned of the incident, Mayor Kelli Linville and Fire Chief Bill Newbold told The Herald in an interview Tuesday.

Kelli Linville mug.JPG
Robert Mittendorf The Bellingham Herald

Employees received a range of disciplinary action that included suspension and letters of reprimand in their personnel files.

“What’s really important to us is setting clear expectations” for future conduct, Newbold said.

Newbold said some of the firefighters still could face discipline from the state Department of Health, which licenses emergency medical technicians and paramedics.

Both Barker and council member Michael Lilliquist said they only recently learned of the incident.

“Shock and horror,” he said in an interview Tuesday with The Herald. “I’m glad that they took action to hold people accountable.”

Fire Department officials said its administration became aware of the incident in early August and began an investigation.

Linville said that the incident wasn’t publicized until an investigation was complete.

“We wanted to make sure that we were accurate,” Linville said. “I think that’s respectful of both the public and the employees.”

Both Barker and Lilliquist said it was appropriate for the city to investigate the matter before issuing a statement.

“I’m glad that we didn’t act in a hasty fashion,” Lilliquist said.

Barker said she would like clarity on the incident’s timeline, but said she realizes that there’s a need to conduct an internal investigation and respect the employees’ rights.

Still, such incidents damage the public’s trust in its emergency services, she said.

“We need to look at why it happened,” Barker said. “ It’s something to dive into and ensure that it can never happen again.”

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty Mittendorf is a volunteer firefighter with South Whatcom Fire Authority.

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