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Volunteers Seeing Red Over Chief's Report
by Jackie Young


Firefighters in the Sedona-Flagstaff area intermittently employ "controlled burns" as a means of preventing future forest fires - a practice that increasingly has come under fire from some in the public who wonder why the skies are filled with smoke from intentionally set fires.

Now some Sedona Fire District volunteers are adding kindling to the great public relations fireballs lobbed by new Chief Larry Drake, who has developed a "One Hundred Day Report" for reform of existing fire district practices.

Drake's apparently well-organized and well-oiled report recommends restructuring the way volunteers are used, adding more full-time career employees, and eliminating the practice of full time employees "volunteering back" their time.

Armed with statistics, Drake and Volunteer Capt. Robert Wright are exchanging a fire of words, each believing he is the one with the community's best interests at heart. Each is sincere in his efforts at making a better fire district for the residents of the surrounding area, which encompasses spectacular terrain that poses amazing geographical and logistical challenges to firefighters.

At stake is the future of how volunteers are utilized within a department that Drake would like to see rely increasingly on full-time, paid employees, while Wright would like to see volunteers continue to be a motivational force as well as a reminder of the history of the past firefighting strategies employed in the region.

Several meetings in June involved an exchange of emotionally-charged and sometimes heated rhetoric among longtime volunteers, the Sedona Fire District Board of Directors and Drake. The exchanges left some citizens wondering: Who will put out all the fires and how will it be accomplished?

Wright said he believes the answer to those questions is Drake making his actions match his rhetoric. Instead of merely apologizing for not involving the volunteers more in the major decisions of the fire district, he said Drake should make his actions reflect a sense of the community's history of dependence on volunteers.

Wright also feels Drake needs to demonstrate via his behavior, not just words, greater respect for the sacrifices that firefighters make when they go to put out a fire in Oak Creek Canyon or other hot spots around the area.

Although he said he is not opposed to all of the changes Drake is proposing, Wright is concerned that the extensive tenure of volunteer leaders will be pushed to the back burner if the District Board and Drake continue to bulldoze their agenda for reform through this summer without fully considering the implications for volunteer recruitment and morale in the future.

Wright, who has some 12 years of experience with the Sedona Fire District as a volunteer, doesn't want to come off as just some disgruntled fuddy duddy who opposes change of any kind. However, he expressed concerned about the direction the Board is headed, regardless of whether he keeps his title as a volunteer leader or even continues to volunteer with the district in the future.

Volunteer firefighters, who often work for the love of helping others, in a missionary fashion, and usually have a longer tenure than full-time employees, feel that Drake has "established an aura of nontrust by not communicating" with the volunteers, Wright said.

Wright said he respects Drake's 28 years of experience with the Orange County Fire Service in California, and he wants Drake to respect volunteers' combined 100 plus years of firefighting experience in the Sedona region and to learn more about the history of the area.

Drake currently rents a house here and maintains a house in Prescott, where he had retired until applying for this job when learning about the opportunity on a visit.

"Everybody likes a say in their own destiny," Wright said, explaining that volunteers are no different. "This country, much less this county, can't afford to be without volunteers."
Wright called on Sedona's voting public to get involved and to vote with their feet at the election booth when the current board's terms are up for election. Elections in the past have witnessed a relatively low turnout, he said.

Drake has been a man of action, trying to get the fire district back on its toes after years of suffering the fallout from a poor community image and frustrating billing and other administrative and financial screwups. These included problems with billing for paramedic and emergency medical technician services to local hospitals and health care centers and a controversy involving crimes committed by a firefighter who was later discharged.

Drake said he is concerned that a Labor Department fine the district faced in 1990, costing the district $60,000 in back wages for employees who volunteered back their services, coupled with a fragmented command network, pose significant problems to meeting the public's service needs.
As a result, the Board approved Drake's request that employees no longer be allowed to volunteer back their services, causing several full-time employees to quit for various personal reasons, including one who left a June board meeting in tears over the matter.

Drake has repeatedly said he values volunteers in the district and does not want to eliminate them from the Sedona Fire District's operations.

"No one wants to eliminate the volunteer program," he said, noting that he will continue to meet with members of a task force of volunteer and career firefighters to work through implementation of the new command structure.

Currently, Sedona's volunteer firefighters have full and free health care benefits without a minimum number of hours being served. Each side agrees that this is a unique situation, one that Wright attributes to the community's longtime respect and appreciation for volunteer fire service.
Drake, who admits he was once reluctant to take on administrative duties after years of work as a hands-on firefighter, confides that he is less comfortable with the politics of administering over the Sedona bureaucracy. But looking at the amount of money spent on volunteer benefits versus the amount of service they provide, Drake wonders if there isn't a more cost effective way to provide the same or better service.
However, Wright said, the sort of service that volunteers provide in a mostly career-run district is not about numbers as much as helping to boost employee morale and giving newer and younger full-time recruits a sense of the history of the community and their role in it. They are motivators who can help career officers who may have lost sight of the big picture, putting them at risk of quitting or performing their jobs at less than the optimum level, Wright said.

At a time when issues and people's tempers seem to simmer and flare almost as quickly as the pace of change in the workplace, the key to resolution of this complex issue comes down to a matter of respect.

And respect is a two-way street that needs to be bridged by some courageous folks in both the community and the Sedona Fire District. This sizzling, controversial issue may not be settled for some time, and the victors (if they can be called that, for they are all of us in a sense) are not known until the last vote has been counted on election day.

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