The Kittitas County Sentinel Group
September 30, 2018 ~~
To: Commissioners and Interested Parties:
From: Kittitas County Sentinel Group
Following is our analysis, recommendation, and conclusions for issues surrounding the appointment of a Fire Marshal for Kittitas County.
Kittitas County has recently been trying to fill the position of Fire Marshal and after a few fits and starts in the past has found someone they like. That has resulted in a discussion on the responsibilities of the position and who the Fire Marshal might report to, and how to separate and allocate the duties of investigation, fire safety and Fire Code compliance.
Issues that have emerged in the work sessions (incidentally, well-attended by the pubic), seemed driven by the belief that the investigative responsibilities might be handled by a qualified fire investigator housed in the Sheriff’s office. As it turns out, that suggestion was an interim solution, driven by the fact that yearly fire and safety inspections were way behind, and that the public seems to need the assurance of the presence of a Fire Marshal.
The Current Issues
Location and Responsibilities: The Sheriff’s office is not interested in code compliance issues and seems to be, in fact, only to be offering an intermediate position that will satisfy public demand until the new Fire Marshal is hired.
Funding and Budget, Part 1: If county leadership agrees that the position is necessary, then the personnel and pay issues are a wash no matter where the position lands. They are going to have to scare up the money for the Fire Marshal and at least one assistant person one way or another.
Funding and Budget, Part 2: The office of the Fire Marshall as a general fund position (supported by tax dollars, not service fees) spreads the cost over those who benefit most, the citizens of Kittitas County. Trying to fund the department from an enterprise fund (again from fees for service) will only hobble the incidental duties of the Fire Marshal. These might include additional training/professional compliance, communications with fire districts and their leadership, coordination of policy issues with municipalities, public appearances, IFC code compliance and a lot of stuff that we can’t think of right now.
Funding from fees puts the Fire Marshal’s Office in the position of being always a year behind its funding needs because the County updates its fee structures yearly and in many cases bi-annually.
The Position: The definition, and therefore the duties of a Fire Marshall as opposed to a Fire Code Enforcement official is difficult to define given the nonexistent use of the terms in the International Fire Code and the inclusion of the term in State fire codes.
Availability: Staff and BOCC seemed excited about the prospects of hiring an individual who has applied for the position.
CDS and KCPW are in a much better position to assure that there are different avenues available to achieve the same goals in terms of building inspections, project permitting, and fire and safety compliance requirements for specific projects.
First, hire the person you seem to like. We would suggest that you be very clear that you consider this a long-term position and that they will be expected to stay here for a minimum of ‘X’ years. This requirement, of course can not be a condition of employment, but certainly can be stated as an expectation of both the Board of County Commissioners and the community.
The best way for the prospective Fire Marshal to understand the general state of the county is to let them be a part of the process of defining and creating the position. You tend to find out a lot about that person in that process.
Primarily, and this is going to be difficult – define the roles of the two positions very carefully. Fire Marshall positions tend to inflate and accrue duties for any number of reasons and the best way to control that is to have a good understanding of the different roles of the Fire Marshall and the Code Compliance Official (for a lack of a better word). Our suggestions on defining the different responsibilities of the positions:
The Fire Marshall
- Shall be responsible to and report to the Board of County Commissioners
- Shall be responsible for determination of cause and extent of any fire in unincorporated Kittitas County.
- Shall consult with, and in an advisory capacity, insure that the county fire code as applied in Kittitas county and assure that the county is compliant with IFC standards.
- Inspect and certify large building (+20 unit) fire and safety issues
- Insure that proper training is available to all code compliance officers and their staff. If qualified, conduct that training personally.
- Consulting with Development Services, Public Works, the BOCC and other internal departments on any projects concerning Fire and safety issues.
- Probably a lot more!
The Code Compliance Official(s)
- Shall be responsible to and report to the Kittitas County Director of Community Development Services.
- Shall be responsible for the day-to-day operation of routine fire and safety inspections.
- Shall insure that all land use and large project actions are compliant with current Kittitas County fire code.
- Shall work with the Kittitas County Fire Marshall, in conjunction with the Kittitas County Director of Community Development and other affected county officials, to ensure that the fire code adopted in Kittitas County is reflective of the varying terrains and land use issues present in Kittitas County.
Developers, builders and landowners all need a certain regulatory predictability when they come to the county for permits. The permitting process is influenced by structural and siting requirements and, increasingly, fire safety requirements.
Only recently has Kittitas county adopted a countywide process for meeting the requirements of what is called the Wildland Urban Interface Fire Code. The more common name is the acronym, WUI (pronounced “wooey”).
Because of changing personnel and a general lack of direction, the interpretation of the WUI code has been either spotty, unpredictable, or been unable to accept alternative solutions that satisfy the goals of the code.
Separating the Fire Marshal from the code compliance position frees the Fire Marshal up to do investigative work, perform the duties of a very public position and work within the community to establish the kind of trust that the public desires.
Placing the actual building code interpretations under the responsibilities of a code compliance person will make code compliance part of the planning and land use process that the Department of Community Development Services is already geared up to handle.
The Sentinel Group urges the Board of County Commissioners to define the positions carefully in order to avoid the issues with the position of the Fire Marshal that we have suffered in the past.