Firefighters, commissioners back 18-year veteran’s selection
By Ann McCreary
Cody Acord, who has served for two years as interim chief of Okanogan County Fire District 6, will become chief of the fire district on Jan. 1, 2018.
Fire district commissioners debated whether to advertise the fire chief position, but after hearing strong support for Acord from firefighters, commissioners voted Monday (Sept. 11) to promote him to the job.
Acord, an 18-year veteran of the fire district, has served as de facto chief for the past two years, while Don Waller retained the title of chief during a two-year paid leave that he negotiated with the district. Waller’s leave ends Dec. 31, and with that deadline approaching commissioners needed to decide whether to advertise for the job.
Commissioners Jerry Palm and Darold Brandenburg said they were pleased with the job Acord has done as interim chief, and favored promoting him to chief. “He knows the whole system and he’s been doing an excellent job,” Palm said.
But Commissioner Les Stokes said he was concerned about the “appearance of fairness” and wanted to open the job to all qualified applicants. “I think in all fairness we’ve got to open it up,” Stokes said. However, he added, “I think Cody hands down will be the best.”
Palm and Brandenburg argued that appointing Acord would maintain stability in the district. “We’ve got a really good department. To throw someone else in there would mean we’d be going backwards for a while,” Palm said. “Someone could be just as qualified … but 50 percent of the chief is knowing the area and knowing the people.”
Support for Acord
Commissioners asked for opinions from people attending the meeting, many of them firefighters.
“I’ve been a firefighter for 25 years. I can’t think of a more professional person for this job than Cody Acord,” said Charles Hammer, a volunteer with the district. “His door is always open to us. He has the trust of the Forest Service, Department of Natural Resources and other fire districts. I support him 100 percent.”
Acord, Hammer added, “has done damage control” during his tenure as interim chief. “It was chaos when Don Waller turned in his paperwork” for his paid leave, Hammer said.
“This seems like a no-brainer,” said firefighter Tiago Pacheco. “There is a chain of command and trust. Do we want somebody who doesn’t know the area?”
Pacheco and other firefighters warned that the district could lose volunteers if Acord were not retained as chief. “I guarantee there will be a massive shift in the fire department. I’m not trying to blackmail,” he told commissioners.
“Everyone backs up Cody Acord 100 percent,” said firefighter Jeremiah Fosness. “I feel like you’ll lose people. Keep the guys that fight the fires happy.”
“What happens if volunteers start walking off the scene?” Brandenburg asked.
“That’s my biggest concern — the volunteers,” agreed Stokes.
Even people who favored advertising for a fire chief said they thought Acord would be the likely choice. “I would recommend you advertise it, pretty well knowing who you will pick,” said Larry Smith, a former fire district commissioner. “I have no doubt Cody’s going to be your man.”
Commissioners might be criticized for not advertising the job, but could also draw criticism if they opened the job to other applicants and then hired Acord, said Paul Sisson, a community member.
“You’ve got demonstrated capacity and a known quantity,” said Sisson. “If you do open it up and hire Cody, there’s going to be a perception the fix is in.”
“There are a certain number of people that aren’t going to be happy, no matter what you do,” said firefighter Alan Fahnestock.
After listening to comments, Palm turned to Acord and asked him how he would feel about becoming chief.
“I would be humbled to be the chief,” said Acord. “It would be a great honor to serve the community and these volunteers who stepped up to show support for me.”
When Brandenburg and Palm voted in favor of appointing Acord, people in the room gave a loud round of applause.
Career in firefighting
Acord joined the district as a volunteer 18 years ago, and was hired as a division chief in 2007. He was promoted to assistant chief in 2012. A 1994 Liberty Bell High School graduate, Acord received a fire science degree from Spokane Community College and worked as an engine captain for the U.S. Forest Service from 2001-2007.
Acord said his primary goals as chief will be “to support our firefighters as much as possible, provide them with the tools they need,” and recruit new volunteers.
“We’re always working toward increasing volunteerism when possible. I think volunteerism is still strong in this valley,” Acord said. However, he added, attracting and retaining volunteer firefighters “is an issue nationwide” and raises the question of what kind of fire protection the community wants. “It will be a discussion in the future. How far in the future, I can’t tell you.”
Acord said he supports building a new fire station to replace the leased space in Winthrop, and will work to move that project forward. And, he said, “I want to work on maintaining communication with the public, having an open door and having folks able to come in and talk with me.”
The fire chief position, which currently pays $76,000 per year, has been held by Waller since 2002. Waller, who sparked controversy related to plans to finance and build a new fire station, had accrued more than 4,000 hours of leave and compensation time when he suddenly announced his intention to retire in December 2015.
Rather than pay out the accrued leave and compensation time in a lump sum, commissioners agreed to a contract proposed by Waller that paid him salary and benefits while he was on leave for two years. The salary portion of his payment while on leave totals about $149,000.
During his leave, Waller has continued to respond to fire calls and participate in training, and has had use of a district fire vehicle. At the end of his two-year leave, all remaining accrued benefits will be paid out, according to the agreement.
The arrangement with Waller, which was presented as an addendum to his employment contract, drew considerable public criticism. Commissioners subsequently consulted with attorneys in an effort to rescind the agreement, but were not successful. The district has since adopted new policies limiting the amount of leave and compensation time that employees can accrue.