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Fire department review presents problems, solutions

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POLSON — Unrest in the Polson Fire Department and the Polson Rural Fire District led membership to draft a letter of no confidence in Polson Fire Chief John Fairchild and submit it to Polson City Manager Mark Shrives.

Reasons stated in the letter were safety concerns, leadership issues, communication issues and a lack of trust, although “The citizens of Polson can be assured that the service they are receiving is a very good product,” said Chief Curt Belts, retired Missoula Rural Fire District Fire Chief, who was hired to conduct the review of the PFD.  

When Shrives received the letter of no confidence in November of 2014, “The first thing I did was my own review,” he said.

He met with everybody from the approximate 40-member body who signed the letter, developed some questions and provided those to Fairchild and asked for some responses. That’s when Shrives brought in Chief Belts, who has 30 years of service experience, 10 years of fire administration and has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and leadership.

Belts used information from a 2013 fire department evaluation by Emergency Services Consulting International study, internal documents and personal interviews with fire department personnel. 

Polson city commissioners, members of the PFD and the PRFD formed a committee to work through the issues after the ESCI study was received, but not much progress has been made. 

The volunteer firefighters of both districts provide fire protection to the Polson area.

Belts and the ESCI both brought up the fact that the PFD and the PRFD work together through an inter-local agreement and share the services of the fire chief. The PFD is governed by the City of Polson; the PRFD has an elected board of trustees; and the membership of the PFD votes on new members. 

“While all three have a vested interest in the success of the PFD, each one has a different idea of how that should be accomplished and their own expectation of the fire chief,” Belts said in his review. “The lack of a unified form of governance causes great frustration where the fire chief is concerned.” 

Every group and individual Belts interviewed had concerns about poor communication; lack of respect for leadership as well as each other; lack of trust; and inconsistencies in following department guidelines, especially discipline.

 “We’re working our way through the report and trying to determine the next steps,” Shrives said.

While the PRFD welcomes whatever input it can get, that input should be looked at in conjunction with the earlier ESI study, according to PRFD Chair R. Jack Clapp.

“The one predominate issue that came out of both studies was that the PRFD and the PFD form one entity to join together,” Clapp said.  

The firefighters weighed in, too, with a letter read to the membership and then sent by PFD president Matt Sisler to both Shrives and Jack Clapp, chair of the PRFD on April 7. Many of the suggestions echo the evaluation, such as consolidating both the city and the rural into one entity; a weekly meeting between the fire chief and the Polson City Manager and communications to all fire department officers equally and at one time; a job description and performance appraisals for the fire chief; and new firefighters hired by the PFD, not the membership, “using applications, interviews, criminal background checks, reference checks, physical tests and medical evaluations,” according to Sisler’s letter.

Belts’ recommendations are: 

• The governance needs to be fixed so there is truly unity in the oversight of the fire department and direct oversight of the fire chief

• The chief needs to report to only one entity

• Overall leadership needs to improve in the fire department

• There needs to be direct and vigilant oversight of the fire chief by his reporting seniors

• The PFD officer selection process should change to include a performance based selection process and annual performance appraisals should be completed on each officer by the chief

• Discipline needs to be established and carried out equally

• A code of ethics and conduct needs to be established for the PFD

• Active PFD firefighters should not be on the PRFD board of trustees

• Standard operating guidelines and policies need to be followed consistently by all

• An organizational chart complete with lines of authority and direct report needs to be established bringing a paramilitary environment to the PFD

• A grievance procedure needs to be developed to allow for issues to be heard

“The PFD has suffered a lot of internal damage and as such will require significant efforts to fix the issues,” Belts said, recommending a professional team builder/facilitator be hired.

Belts’ complete review can be accessed on the fire department’s website at then click on agency evaluation final report on the right side of the page. 


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