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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.