By Melinda Munson

The Skagway Fire Department audit was officially approved by the borough assembly Dec. 16. The 201-page document lists 109 recommendations, 25 of them classified as “urgent or immediate” with “potential threat to life.” According to Interim Chief Emily Rauscher, 18 of the priority one action items have been completed thus far.

When Chief Craig Haigh, senior consultant for McGrath Consulting Group, began the audit, the situation was dire.

“…Back in early August when work on this audit started, the department had a total of 11 emergency responders (paid and volunteer combined), only seven of which were active; zero active members were certified firefighters; there were three active emergency medical technicians and there was no fire chief” (pg. 11).

The borough named Rauscher, then the EMS director and the only remaining full-time employee at the fire department, as interim fire chief. The decision was one of three recommended options set out by the audit.

“This individual is known, respected and a long-time member of the community who has strong family ties to Skagway,” the report said in reference to Rauscher.

“She has a drive and passion for the department and the borough and appears ready to work hard to rebuild the department. She has excellent administrative skills and a strong educational background in emergency medical services. Her clear drawback is the lack of fireground operational training along with tactical incident command experience” (pg 14).

The municipality hired four individuals for temporary firefighter/EMT positions and began recruiting and training volunteers from the community.

According to Borough Manager Brad Ryan, interviews for fire chief will commence in February. The application period is open until filled. Ryan is on the hiring committee along with Mayor Andrew Cremata and Assemblymember Sam Bass, chair of the Public Safety Committee. Ryan hopes to add a fourth member with fire fighting expertise.

In his audit presentation, Haigh stressed the high level of risk that Skagway faces.

“Skagway has a greater multi-disciplined emergency preparedness need than most big cities,” Haigh said. He listed off potential hazards: the airport, cruise ships, the marina, trains, outdoor recreation, landslides and floods.

“There are very, very few communities that exist in our country today, other than maybe the big giant guys that have all of that, that need to be protected. And you’re doing it in a remote area where you can’t get assistance from anybody in a timely fashion … And if you don’t provide those services, if something goes bad in your attempt to provide those services, the world is going to know because Skagway is on the map. And it’s not going to be something that’s going to be a hit. You have a lot of risk here,” he said. 

Like most fire departments, a majority of Skagway’s calls are medical.

“I would say that you are an EMS agency that occasionally goes to a fire,” Haigh said. He noted that the EMS department had not been “culturally valued” in the past.

Haigh recommended doing away with “field promotions” and having clear guidelines for how and why individuals are promoted. He described one employee who seemed “embarrassed” he was promoted because he felt he didn’t meet the qualifications. Haigh stressed the need for better record keeping and pointed out the need for a backup system should the 911 communication center fail due to weather or technical difficulties. He did not recommend a Dyea fire station, with the area making up only 2% of responses.

The report touched on communication between Ryan and former fire department staff.

“There seems to be a generalized opinion that Skagway is a ‘small sleepy town’ with few risks/threats and target hazards,” the audit said. “The lack of frequent major incidents seems to have lulled department members into believing that a lack of preparedness is somehow okay. This cultural issue is extremely dangerous and places the community at significant risk.”

“Without a full understanding of both sides of the communication equation, a toxic culture has been created toward the manager by some fire department staff. By the lead consultant’s best assessment, this toxicity is misplaced and not an accurate reflection of the manager’s actual position” (pg 34).

The audit cost $46,978 plus travel expenses and took four months to complete. Ryan described the audit as a “guiding document.” The municipality can pick and choose which elements they want to implement.

“As we grow, there will be other recommendations,” he said.

Rauscher confirmed she applied for the permanent fire chief position. Paul Meyers, former fleet manager and ER responder who resigned from his full-time job at the fire department last August, gave formal resignation from the volunteer fire department in December. He sent his letter to 23 recipients. 

“As of now, because of the leadership, I cannot safely or with good conscience volunteer any more. I cannot or will not work under someone who is underqualified, risking personal life and safety,” he wrote.

Neither Ryan nor Rauscher would comment on Meyers’ letter.

“I’ve never seen the fire department so active since I’ve been here. People seem to be engaged,” Ryan said.

“(We) appear to be in a building phase and they’re happy to be there,” he added.

The complete audit can be found here.