Ocean Shores Fire Department conflict reaches boiling point

A monthslong disagreement between the city of Ocean Shores and the Ocean Shores Professional Fire Fighters International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 2109 Union came to a head last week when the city received three notifications from the union.

The notifications were all regarding the contentious addition of an assistant fire chief position to the Ocean Shores Fire Department (OSFD) staff.

IAFF Local 2109 Union President Corey Kuhl submitted an “Unfair Labor Practice Complaint” (ULP) and a “Unit Clarification Petition” to the city on Feb. 7. This was followed by a “Whistleblower Policy Complaint” from a law firm to Ocean Shores Mayor Jon Martin on behalf of Local 2109. According to Martin, the city will proceed with its plan to fill the position and is seeking to dismiss the union’s complaints.

The assistant fire chief position was approved by the Ocean Shores City Council in November 2021, along with the hiring of an additional firefighter in 2022. IAFF Local 2109 has been vocal in their opposition to additional management staff and believe the money should be spent hiring more firefighters to meet staffing requirements.

According to the city’s municipal code, OSFD must have one firefighter on duty per 1,000 residents. Previously, Ocean Shores residents took a hit from the insurance rating designated by the Washington Surveying and Rating Bureau (WSRB) due to staffing inadequacies within the fire department. Effective Sept. 1, 2020, the Protection Classification (PC) for most of Ocean Shores improved, with the exception of the south end of the city, where insufficient staffing of the South End Fire Station has hindered an effective response system.

Conversations are ongoing about a plan to add a kitchen and living quarters to the South End Fire Station, which would allow for more on-duty firefighters, but concerns over funding the necessary staff additions remain.

“Until we are compliant with the city ordinance regarding fire department staffing, we should not be considering any additional positions other than operational positions for 24/7 staffing. Until we can adequately staff our headquarter station, and our south station, in order to provide adequate life safety and property preservation for our citizens, we should not be adding any additional positions other than operational staffing for 24/7 staff,” said Kuhl during public comment at a Nov. 22, 2021, City Council meeting.

Notifications received by the city on Feb. 7 allege Ocean Shores did not bargain in good faith over the position of the assistant fire chief, and raises the issue of whether the new position should be part of management or part of the union. The ULP was filed with the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC), and the city is in the beginning of a process that could result in a hearing in approximately six months, with a decision from a PERC hearing in the next year.

“It is the city’s position that it exercised a management right to add the position of assistant fire chief and was not legally required to bargain with Local 2109 before exercising this right,” said Martin in the Mayor’s Report for the Feb. 15 city council meeting.

The city also intends to argue that because the position of chief is not currently in the union, and assistant chief is a high-level management position that will work with the chief on management level functions, that the position should be considered part of upper management, and therefore not a part of the union.

While staffing levels of the OSFD have remained below those dictated by the city ordinance, demand has increased due to community growth in recent years. The department has also been strained by hospital-bound EMS calls that sometimes result in diversions to Olympia and beyond. Such instances leave the fire stations understaffed for hours and unable to meet fire response staffing levels when called to a burning structure.

On June 3, 2021, OSFD was dispatched to a structure fire at a two-story house on the 100 block of Seagate Street SW. The fire department was already busy with three ambulances transporting 911 calls to outside hospitals, while a number of local hospitals were on divert. While the owners were not home, two dogs were trapped inside the structure. As the only member of the OSFD in the city at the time, Fire Chief Mike Thuirer attempted to rescue the dogs as the single responder to the structure fire.

Two off-duty Ocean Shores firefighters and Fire District #7 responded minutes later, which allowed access to one of the dogs in the home. Unfortunately, the second dog perished in the fire.

Following the incident, Local 2109 Union President Corey Kuhl submitted a complaint stating that Chief Thuirer had violated safety practices by his action on the scene. As a result of an investigation, in which Thuirer was found to have failed in following all safety regulations, Thuirer attended a fire safety training class.

The Feb.9 “Whistleblower Policy Complaint” alleges that the request and approval to hire an assistant fire chief by the city is a direct retaliation for this and other complaints filed by Kuhl against Thuirer. Mayor Martin exercised his right to reject the complaint in Monday’s city council meeting.

“The mayor’s personal attack on veteran Ocean Shores firefighter Corey Kuhl for using the city’s identified process for reporting retaliatory actions by city employees is another blemish in this battle,” says a statement from IAFF Local 2109 released on Wednesday, Feb. 16.

Martin is adamant that the assistant fire chief was not created in retaliation to Kuhl’s complaints, and believes the position is beneficial to the city and its citizens.

“I am in favor of creating the position because I believe the fire department, given its size and structure, will benefit from additional leadership at the chief’s level,” he said.

The mayor also believes that the assistant fire chief position would remedy the issue of captains being overloaded with chief-level responsibilities, which lead to Local 2109 requesting additional compensation for fire captains during 2020-2022 contractual negotiations.

Properly staffing the fire department is a priority for both the city and the union. The city has applied for another Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant after being rejected for such funding last year. In the meantime, the department will continue to operate below safe staffing levels until new firefighters can be hired.

“Ocean Shores firefighters intend to use the legally identified processes to have our issues heard, investigated, and resolved, and look forward to working to prevent future retaliation for our work protecting the community,” said the Local 2109 press release.