Parkwood fire chief ousted; downsizing in works

Apr. 01, 2014 @ 08:56 PM

Directors of the Parkwood Volunteer Fire Department on Monday sacked the department’s longtime chief and approved a staffing plan that will reduce the number of full-time workers on its payroll.

The decision to replace Chief William Colley comes as Parkwood’s board tries to get it back in the good graces of a county government that’s questioned its financial stability.
“We as a board never question former Chief Colley’s heart or desire to see Parkwood prosper,” board President Sam Goldman said in a letter to department members. “We make this decision with very heavy hearts and wish him well in his future endeavors.”
Battalion Chief Reggie Villines will serve as interim chief, Goldman added.
The staffing move, meanwhile, will leave the department with 14 full-time personnel. Parkwood is downsizing as it transfers its ambulance service to the county government.
With Colley’s departure, it now has 26 full-timers on its payroll. Two focus exclusively on the ambulance service, while a number of the rest split their effort between ambulances and firefighting.
The personnel who remain will work exclusively on firefighting, in conjunction with part-timer staffers and volunteers.
As the county absorbs Parkwood’s ambulance service, the department budget will shrink as well, dropping from about $4 million a year to about $1.8 million a year, said Ray Echevarria, the trustee that’s overseeing Parkwood’s affairs.
Echevarria, the former director of fire and emergency management in Wake County, confirmed that he’d signed off on the board’s decision to oust Colley, deeming it “the right thing to do” as the reorganization unfolds.
He anticipates that Villines will serve as interim chief while it continues.
“In my opinion, it may be prudent to have that interim [chief] work through these issues, get the department on a firm foundation and then decide what they want to do on a permanent basis” with the chief’s job, Echevarria said. “There’s a lot of work to do in a short period of time.”
It’s not clear yet whether the downsizing will translate into layoffs, as department leaders are still working on the plan for implementing it, he said.
The answer on that could also depend on how many staffers choose to leave of their own accord, he added.
“Of course the department doesn’t want to lay off anybody,” Echevarria said. “Given the situation Parkwood has been in in the past few months, I’m sure there are several of those employees who are looking at employment elsewhere. Hopefully they can move to other services. But how many will find employment elsewhere, those numbers, it’s just too early to tell right now.”
The county is in the midst of recruiting people to fill 36 positions with the new ambulance service, which it’s funding with the money it was formerly paying Parkwood to run and plus the fees charged to patients.
So far, “several folks from Parkwood [have] applied for those positions,” Interim County Manager Lee Worsley said, adding that his government is “not automatically transferring” personnel from the volunteer department.
He added that when the county absorbed the Bethesda Volunteer Fire Department last year, workers who weren’t already on its payroll also had to apply if they wanted to stay on.
“If they’re going to be working for the county, we need to run through the application and assess them with any other candidates,” Worsley said. “We want to be sure we have a process that’s open and fair and considers everybody.”
Echevarria believes the downsized department will nonetheless be more effective on the firefighting front, as without the ambulance service there won’t be a problem any more with firefighters being tied up on ambulance calls when a fire call comes in.
Worsley indicated county officials have no quarrel with the board’s moves, though they learned of Colley’s ouster only on Tuesday morning.
They are “very pleased with how diligently the Parkwood board of directors has [worked] over the last couple of months with the trustee to develop a plan” for “stabilizing Parkwood Fire Department financially and operationally,” Worsley said.
The county is the primary funder of the Parkwood department, paying it for fire coverage in the rural portions of south and southwest Durham.
County officials sought Echevarria’s appointment as trustee after an audit suggested the department had been raiding an insurance reserve to cover day-to-day expenses.
Complaints from the Durham Fire Department about Parkwood’s handling of a house fire in southwest Durham last year also contributed to the move to bring in a trustee.
The city now is moving to cut off a $143,130 annual subsidy it’s paid Parkwood for help on in-town fire calls.