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Most Millwood firefighters quit after chief put on leave

Millwood Fire Chief Bill Clifford speaks with media with supporters behind him at Millwood Fire Station on Tuesday. Millwood Fire Chief Bill Clifford speaks with media with supporters behind him at Millwood Fire Station on Tuesday. 
 (Holly Pickett/Holly Pickett/ / The Spokesman-Review)
Millwood Fire Chief Bill Clifford speaks with media with supporters behind him at Millwood Fire Station on Tuesday. Millwood Fire Chief Bill Clifford speaks with media with supporters behind him at Millwood Fire Station on Tuesday. (Holly Pickett/Holly Pickett/ / The Spokesman-Review)

All but one of Millwood’s volunteer firefighters quit en masse Tuesday after Fire Chief Bill Clifford was put on paid administrative leave.

Millwood Mayor Jeanne Batson has temporarily brought in firefighters from another town to fill the gap in fire protection.

Airway Heights Fire Chief John Schoen will act as Millwood’s interim chief. Airway Heights volunteer firefighters moved into the station Tuesday and have begun responding to nighttime fire and medical calls within Millwood’s town limits.

Having Airway Heights fill in is not a permanent solution, Millwood’s labor attorney Brian Werst said Tuesday.

Millwood had 12 volunteer firefighters who covered the town at night and on weekends. Eleven of them quit on Tuesday.

The town still has two full-time firefighters who work Monday through Friday during the day. A third firefighter, Tony Perry, was laid off in December.

Perry’s departure caused a maelstrom in the small town.

In recent months, area firefighters have picketed town hall. Firefighters turned in a petition with 270 signatures asking the town council to “restore public safety to Millwood.” Last week, the state Public Employment Relations Commission held a hearing that will determine whether Perry’s job was terminated in retaliation for his union organizing. The town says Perry was laid off due to a budget crunch.

Clifford said he was shocked and angry to get put on administrative leave, even with all the recent controversy, He’s been with the town’s Fire Department since 1994 and was hired as the paid fire chief in 1999.

“They said I haven’t followed their policies and I have not managed the Fire Department appropriately,” Clifford said.

A hearing on Clifford’s employment has been scheduled for June 2.

The town’s five elected council members either refused to comment or didn’t return phone messages seeking comment Tuesday.

Mayor Batson read a prepared statement Tuesday without looking up at television cameras. Batson was flanked by Werst as well as the town’s labor negotiators, Gary Hunt and Valerie Andersson Hunt. She refused to take questions afterward.

The town will make every effort to get the volunteers to reconsider their resignation, Batson said in her statement. In the interim, Batson said she was confident Millwood will continue to receive the same or better fire protection with its “new volunteer firefighters.”

Schoen, the interim chief, used to be a volunteer for the town of Millwood. Schoen did not return two messages left for him Tuesday. It’s unclear how much he and volunteer firefighters will be paid, if anything.

Airway Heights city manager Chuck Freeman said Schoen talked to him approximately two weeks ago about the possibility of becoming Millwood’s interim chief. Schoen will continue as Airway Heights’ chief and will only work 13 hours a week at Millwood, Freeman said.

“There’s nothing preventing him from working two jobs,” Freeman said. “It’s just the quality of his work here cannot suffer.”

Schoen has done a good job of getting more volunteers at Airway Heights since he came four years ago, Freeman said.

But people shouldn’t expect the city of Airway Heights to get into the middle of Millwood’s Fire Department squabble, Freeman said.

“We’re going to stay out of it. We’re just offering our fire chief,” he said.

John Wiedmer, a 19-year veteran of the Millwood department, said Clifford has done nothing but the best for the town. Wiedmer said he decided to quit immediately after hearing the chief had been put on administrative leave.

“I’m out. I’m done,” Wiedmer said.

Millwood is less than a mile square and the Spokane Valley Fire Department services the area beyond town limits.

Valley Fire will not respond to Millwood 911 calls unless someone from the Millwood Fire Department shows up on scene and asks for assistance, Valley Fire Chief Mark Grover said Tuesday. That’s been Valley Fire’s policy for the last several years.

The policy caused Millwood to ask voters to approve bond and levy measures in 2001 that hired three full-time firefighters and built a new station.

Millwood resident Ann Melaas, who attended Tuesday’s press conference, said she was upset to hear that Clifford was leaving and that the volunteers had quit. Her only hope is that all the political fights go away and the Fire Department returns to what it was.

If not, “we’re in a lot of trouble,” Melaas predicted.

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