Work on combining Aberdeen, Hoquiam fire departments into regional fire authority continues

As Aberdeen and Hoquiam take the complex steps needed to potentially blend their fire departments into one regional fire authority, the selection of a name carries more importance than one might think.

When South Beach emergency services were going through the lengthy process, it was stressed that the branding of the resulting fire authority was important to let the communities it served know who was providing their emergency services. That name, the South Beach Regional Fire Authority, was a clear choice.

At a regional fire authority committee meeting in December, representatives from the Aberdeen and Hoquiam fire departments and both cities’ councils heard a name that will likely stick as the push continues to consolidate services: Central Grays Harbor Regional Fire Authority.

Aberdeen Fire Chief Tom Hubbard said “we started an internal poll among both fire departments and I think we had full participation.” He said the internal vote was tight, but in the end, Central Grays Harbor Regional Fire Authority bubbled to the top.

Hubbard said he felt the name “worked well operationally,” as the fire authority would be dispatched as “Central Fire,” clearly defining it from other agencies.

Other suggestions incorporating Aberdeen and Hoquiam into the name, or Grays Harbor Regional Fire Authority, in his mind, did not offer that level of flexibility or a clear distinction from other agencies. Don Bivins, hired as a consultant and fire authority study project manager, agreed.

“It’s very specific about where we are physically located,” said Bivins, and avoids potential confusion in the community, with the many fire districts in the county known as “Grays Harbor Fire District” and a number.

It’s a name that can stick with potential annexation of other departments down the road. Since the study was first suggested, and finally completed in the fall of 2019, Cosmopolis has shown interest in eventually annexation into a fire authority.

Bivins said in talks with council members and others there is “almost an expectation that Cosmopolis is going to be next, and there is going to be growth and other agencies joining in.”

Committee member and Aberdeen City Councilwoman Dee Anne Shaw said she “agreed with the blended name” and likened it to the ongoing efforts for a flood control levee between the two cities: That would be called the North Shore Levee, not the Aberdeen/Hoquiam Levee.

Paul McMillan, committee member and Hoquiam City Councilman, said the name would be the number one item on the agenda in the committee’s January meeting.

At the December committee meeting, Bivins went through the detailed fire authority draft plan step by step. Among other things, the design of a governance board, statutory language, service boundaries, and how the authority would be funded and financed were discussed.

The formation of a fire authority would eventually come down to a vote of the people of both cities. It is most likely the funding mechanism would require a 60% supermajority to pass, meaning it would need 60% of the total vote, not 60% from both Hoquiam and Aberdeen separately.

It’s complicated to merge all the assets of the two departments, including fire stations, apparatus, and details down to the mundane. Both departments are going through the big chore of inventory of all equipment, a chore that the South Beach Regional Fire Authority found very helpful in discovering redundancies and finding better ways to distribute equipment throughout the authority’s boundaries.

At the December meeting, union reps from both departments said they were ready to proceed with a provisional collective bargaining agreement, something that can sometimes be difficult when merging departments.

“It’s not an insignificant event when we have two locals at the point of basically being able to shake hands and come together as a blended local,” said Bivins.

With reps from both cities ready to proceed, they expressed some displeasure with the fact that Aberdeen did not have a management team in place to immediately begin the process. Shaw responded that with turnover and vacancies within city management, Aberdeen would need more time to get its team in place, but once it was it would immediately reach out to the unions to start the process.

“We’ll set it up before the next meeting,” said Aberdeen Councilwoman Tawni Andrews. Conversely, Hoquiam City Administrator Brian Shay told the committee and union reps Hoquiam was ready to proceed.

There is still a lot of work to be done — the process to form a regional authority can take years — but the committee thus far has made a lot of progress, and both fire departments appear to be enthusiastic about consolidating their services. Once the final plan is formed, it will be sent for approval to both city councils. If they approve and pass resolutions the final decision is left up to the voters of both cities.

The next meeting of the regional fire authority committee is set for Jan. 28 at 7 p.m. Links to the Zoom meeting will be found on both cities’ websites ahead of the meeting date.