Onalaska Fire

Residents Renew Concerns About Response Times at Onalaska Fire District Meeting

By Natalie Johnson / njohnson@chronline.com

With the resignation of half of Lewis County Fire District 1’s volunteers in the past few months, residents of the Onalaska area have expressed concerns that the losses would lead to increased emergency response times and a threat to community safety. 

On Thursday, residents said those fears have now become a reality.

“I have a medically fragile toddler at home. I called 911,” resident Carolyn Wendt said. “It took over 23 minutes for someone to respond for a respiratory distressed child. In town. Just right here.” 

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She thanked the people who eventually responded and said they did a great job. She said her concern had nothing to do with the first responders’ abilities. 

“It has to do with the support they need to be able to do that job,” she said. 

Onalaska Fire District Meeting
Former Lewis County Fire District 1 Chief William Van Housen spoke at the district’s regular meeting Thursday night about concerns over response times.

Natalie Johnson / njohnson@chronline.com

Wendt’s daughter spent time in a hospital intensive care unit. Doctors were reluctant to release her because of EMS response times in her hometown, she said. 

“Would you like me to bring in my four other children to stand here in front of you so next time you can explain to them why their sister is maybe even worse off or has passed?” she said. “It’s a reality now, it’s not a hypothetical.”

Joy Sidney said she had an experience with a similar response time the previous month. 

“I have epilepsy. I had to do CPR on my grandmother not too long ago, me and my mom both had to to keep her alive,” she said. “Our leftover volunteers that we have are absolutely fabulous once they get to the scene, but we don’t know when they’re going to get there now.”

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Former Chief William Van Housen said a normal response time for the Onalaska district should be five to 10 minutes, depending on the time of day and the availability of volunteers. 

“I have a similar situation. I have a developmentally disabled child,” he said. “When she was three weeks old, she came home from Harborview.”

That night, she had respiratory distress. A timely response from volunteers saved her life.

Van Housen said the commissioners’ devotion to the creation of a new fire hall is draining money from the district and contributing to the problems.

“Kill your damn dream of this fire hall, resign and be somebody for this community,” he said. “You’d be doing the community a service instead of a disservice and you can’t see it. It’s killing me. At some point you two will answer to the community.”

On Thursday, the commissioners placed the blame elsewhere, specifically on the volunteers who have resigned.

“The people that care about you and your family are still responding. The rest of them quit,” Bill Kassel said. 

The commissioners have repeatedly said that response times in the district are fine. 

“ALS never changed. ALS has always been there,” Commissioner Rich Bainbridge told The Chronicle Tuesday.

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ALS, or advanced life support, is provided by paramedics employed by Lewis County Medic One.

On Tuesday, Bainbridge told The Chronicle Fire District 1 volunteers have responded to every call for aid in Onalaska on the first tone, without relying on mutual aid. 

When asked by The Chronicle, he couldn’t explain how that reconciled with the response times reported by residents.

Residents have called for the resignations of the commissioners on several occasions, including at Thursday night’s meeting, since the pair voted in November to fire former Chief Andrew Martin.

Since that vote, half of the district’s volunteers have quit, the third commissioner Jeff Lee resigned and the state Department of Labor and Industries closed the district’s main station due to dangers from asbestos, mold, mouse droppings, rotting wood and plants growing inside the building.

Some vocal residents and a number of former volunteers have argued that the decision to fire Martin was personally motivated, stemming from his reprimand of a member of Kassel’s family in the fire district. However, other residents say those speaking out against the commissioners are not giving them enough credit for being in a bad situation, and blame the volunteers who left for the district’s current difficulties. 

“We get no credit for being in kind of disarray right now,” Bainbridge said. 

Last week, Martin and former captain Randy Tobler delivered a request for a recall petition for commissioners Rich Bainbridge and Bill Kassel to the Lewis County Auditor’s Office. 

The auditor’s office turned the request over to the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office, which had 15 days from when the request was turned in to bring it before a Superior Court judge. 

On Thursday night, commissioners Bainbridge and Kassel voted to use district funds to pay for an attorney to represent them in the recall. 

Secretary Linda Patraca noted the district has less than $3,000 left in its professional services fund, which would cover the attorney’s costs, for the rest of 2018.

“We need to look at how we’re going to adjust the budget to compensate that,” she said. 

The district’s attorney, Brian Snure, charges about $250 an hour, Patraca said. 

Bainbridge contacted The Chronicle this week, commenting on the request for a recall for his and Kassel’s positions, and saying he felt the commissioners’ side of the story had not received enough attention.

“The reason I called is I didn’t think we were getting a fair shake,” he said.

Bainbridge said he’s been speaking with the district’s attorney on a regular basis.

“I don’t know much about it,” he said of the recall Tuesday. “So far what he’s told me is everything we’ve done has been legal. He says we’ve acted within our authorities. I don’t think I should probably say much more.”

The recall request cites 11 instances in which the commissioners are accused of acting contrary to state law, particularly regarding the Open Public Meetings Act. 

The OPMA requires publicly elected boards to hold meetings that are open to the public unless in specific circumstances. 

District residents have also accused the commissioners of meeting outside the requirements of the OPMA in recent months, in some cases citing Bainbridge and Kassel’s close friendship. 

“We are friends, we go back a long ways. Our kids went to school together,” Bainbridge said. “We have a lot of common interests too.”

But he said allegations of the pair violating the Open Public Meetings Act are not true.

Bainbridge told The Chronicle he and Kassel have a plan to address the community’s concerns about private meetings. 

“I’m going to announce Thursday night that we do have a mediator now,” he said prior to the meeting.

Bainbridge told The Chronicle that when he needs to tell Kassel something related to district business outside of a meeting, he’ll tell the mediator, who can pass along the message to Kassel. 

Then the mediator could pass back a reply to Bainbridge. 

“I’d really like to hear what somebody else is thinking, it really isn’t a decision … We’re not trying to be secretive about it,” Bainbridge said. “The beauty of it is you can hear what everybody’s thinking is.”

While intended to help resolve some district’s issues, the plan could still be a violation of open public meeting laws.

The Open Public Meetings Act specifically prohibits any discussion of business by a voting majority of an elected board outside of a public meeting unless otherwise authorized as an executive session or a closed session. 

While it isn’t explicitly written in the OPMA, Washington courts have traditionally ruled that “serial meetings,” or meetings held with the help of a third party or through email, are prohibited by the act. 

“Any conversation toward meeting of minds, any conversation of agency business that is conducted serially, whether it’s by email or phone or phone tree or a series of face-to-face meetings through a third party, doesn’t matter,” said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. “Any conversation they’re going to have about agency business has to happen in a publicly announced, face to face meeting.”

Bainbridge said he didn’t believe the commission was doing anything wrong. 

“You’ve seen these meetings. It’s hard to discuss things,” he said. “It’s not like it’s a plan to sidestep stuff.”

Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer said he could not comment on the public meetings issue because his office is working on the request for a recall.

Bainbridge announced the mediator at Thursday’s meeting, but at that time didn’t explain his plans to use the person as a go-between with his fellow commissioner.