Twelve years after the City of Big Bear Lake formed a public agency relationship with the larger unincorporated Big Bear community that surrounds it to establish a collective to operate a fire department, its elected governmental leadership is giving serious consideration to opting out of that partnership.
Historically, the Big Bear community and its environs have utilized the services of no fewer than five separate fire agencies. The Big Bear City Fire Department and the Big Bear Lake Fire Protection District, i.e., the municipal fire department which came into existence with the incorporation of the City of Big Bear Lake in 1980, were the two largest entities within the local area among those five.
The 38.45-square mile Big Bear community is home to 17,784 residents. There is some confusion, however about jurisdictional issues in Big Bear, as it consists of two entities, the City of Big Bear Lake and Big Bear City. Despite its name, Big Bear City is not a municipality but rather an unincorporated county area and a designated census place. Big Bear Lake is an incorporated municipality. Despite its status as an actual city, Big Bear Lake is smaller than Big Bear City both in terms of land area and population. Big Bear Lake is 6.42 square miles and has 5,046 inhabitants. Big Bear City is an expansive 32.03 square miles with 12,738 residents. While both qualify as rustic mountain districts, the more compact Big Bear Lake is slightly more urbanized and densely populated. The Big Bear City Community Services District oversees the delivery of water, sewer service and trash service to the unincorporated county area of Big Bear City. It is overseen by an elected board of directors.
In July 2011, both the Big Bear City Community Services District Board and the Big Bear City Council acquiesced in the conceptual formation of the Big Bear Lake Fire Department, which would take place upon the consolidation of the Big Bear City Fire Department and the Big Bear Lake Municipal Fire Department. Details were worked out, including an agreement that Jeff Willis, who had first been hired by the Big Bear City Fire Department as a very young man in 1984 and acceded to the position of that department’s chief in 2008, would oversee the newly formed public safety service provider.
In 2012, the Big Bear Lake City Council and the Big Bear City Community Services District Board of Directors committed to the merger of the Big Bear Lake Municipal Fire Department and the Big Bear City Fire Department under an arrangement that included the creation of the Big Bear Fire Authority Board, which consists of the five directors on the Big Bear Fire Authority Board along with all five Big Bear Lake City Council members.
In his role as fire chief, Willis was answerable to his ten political masters on the Big Bear Fire Authority Board. He divided his time between Station 281 in Big Bear Lake and Station 282 in Big Bear City, Station 283 in Sugar Loaf and Station 284 in Big Bear City, with occasional sojourns to the paid call stations in Boulder Bay and Moonridge.
Despite difficulties, Willis navigated the merger with aplomb, which is widely recognized by mountain residents, the community services district leadership, the politicians and city staff in Big Bear Lake, professional firefighters with other local and county agencies and the firefighters employed by what is now referred to as the Big Bear Fire Department.
One challenge which emerged early on and which has dogged the Big Bear Fire Department continuously is the issue of financing.
Monetary constraints were not and are not endemic to the Big Bear Fire Department and have impacted fire departments throughout the State of California. Cities and jurisdictions elsewhere in the Golden State have found that there is a finite amount of financial resources available to cover the cost of running a fire department, which must compete with other municipal operations for funding. With regard to fire service, a central challenge is the escalating cost of firefighter salaries. In California, starting firefighters average $57,433 in base pay/salary before benefits with an average of $27,737 in overtime for a total of $85,170 annually, which does not include benefits and deferred compensation, which is well above the average pay and benefits of $73,220 provided to typical private sector neophyte employees. This financial burden is so onerous that in more than half of the jurisdictions in California at present, cities and counties have created special fire service districts which levy assessments on homeowners and businesses to obtain augmentation funding to pay to run fire departments. No such assessments have been levied in the Big Bear Community.
In this way, the board of directors of the Big Bear Fire Authority, that is, the Big Bear Lake City Council and the Big Bear City Community Services District’s directors acting collectively, have all along imposed on Willis certain economies while insisting that he operate his department within strict financial parameters. Willis, for his part, has sought to maintain a balance, keeping in mind that he must pay his firefighters a fair and competitive wage, lest he lose members of his trained workforce to other departments, while yet maintaining the physical aspects of his department, including the fire stations, the equipment and vehicles and paying to have his firefighters undergo training in the latest techniques thought to represent best practices within the world of fire science. Working within these constraints has required agility and creativity on Willis’s part, as well as a willingness to forego new vehicle and equipment purchases, making do rather with maintaining and servicing the aging materiel the department has and keeping critical equipment in reliable working order. In addition, the financial constraints have necessitated that the department continue to operate under a two-man fire crew model, whereas the department’s firefighters, particularly its younger ones, consider that to be an anachronism that is dangerous and inadequate. Moving to three-man or four-man crews, however, would entail operating costs in terms of personnel that would either leave the department in the red or require the reduction in equipment acquisition or vehicle maintenance that would further exacerbate other situations the firefighters have complained about.
From the perspective of the board members, the desires and demands of the firefighters for equipment, vehicle and materiel acquisitions and updates in general can most logically be met by reducing personnel costs, which means curtailing or delaying salary increases, which would prove even more unacceptable to the firefighters than the status quo.
Willis has thus found himself caught between, on one end, seeking to run the department in keeping with the demands by the board that he remain within the budget allotted him and, on the other end, the consternation of the men under his command who want him to provide them with the best available and newest tools of their trade with which to carry out their assignments.
The fire authority’s directors are acutely aware that they have themselves imposed on Willis certain conditions that when applied have antagonized or irritated the rank and file, who are represented by their collective bargaining unit, the Big Bear Professional Firefighters Association. Willis, the board recognizes, has been damned for not complying with the association’s demands and will be equally or more damned if he does.
At least since 2015 there have been grumblings from the department’s firefighters that Willis has not been firm enough in his dealings up the chain of command with the Big Bear Fire Authority Board of Directors and that he should be pushing – and pushing hard – for the board to make more money available to the department to both purchase new vehicles and equipment and hire more firefighters to place three men aboard each of the department’s firetrucks each shift.
In 2020, the firemen escalated that grumbling into a formal complaint against Willis. Recognizing that the complaint was a reflection on their parsimonious policy with regard to the department’s budget, the board members pretty much disregarded it.
Earlier this year, the Big Bear Professional Firefighters Association approached then-Big Bear Community Services District Board of Directors Chairman John Green with a request that he agendize a board meeting in May in which Willis’s performance would be a topic for open discussion. Green, recognizing that the firefighters’ union was seeking an opportunity to rake Willis over the coals publicly, turned that request down. The association responded with a vote of no confidence against Willis in June, making a report to that effect by letter to the full board.
In that letter, the association said it had accumulated “examples of fiscal irresponsibility and conduct unbecoming of a fire chief” relating to Willis. While crediting Willis with having successfully managed the merger between the Big Bear City Fire Department and the Big Bear Lake Fire Protection District in 2012, the letter implied that was the last show of competence Willis had evinced. According to the association, Willis has engaged in “political posturing, leveraging, and extreme operational neglect… over the past eight years.” Willis, according to the firefighters, had “repeatedly misrepresented the labor force’s wishes and has degraded our reputation to the board to fulfill his own contractual negotiations. Since the merger in 2012, we have not replaced a piece of firefighting apparatus. The Big Bear Fire Department does not have a working budget for apparatus replacement. Chief Willis prioritizes a bloated administration while running a budget deficit without regard to public safety. Our budget shortfalls are the clearest example of incompetent leadership.” In addition, according to the firefighters, “Chief Willis has consistently failed on his planned operational directives. Additionally, we still have two-person engines, an unsustainable staffing model and we are ignored on basic labor needs. Most egregiously, he repeatedly prioritizes administration and political issues over our ability to protect the community.”
In July, Green died, whereupon the association redoubled its efforts to convince members of the board that it is time for Willis to hit the road. Then, boldly, the Big Bear Professional Firefighters Association delivered an ultimatum to the fire authority: as of September 1, either Willis was removed as chief or they would walk out.
The fire authority called the firefighters’ bluff. September 1 came and went without the fire authority going into a panicked special meeting and without the firefighters walking off the job.
On September 6, the fire authority board met in an executive session outside the scrutiny of the public at which the circumstance between the fire chief and the firefighters was the primary topic. A subcommittee was formed, which was given the assignment of examining the firefighters’ concerns. On September 11, the fire authority board made a statement that “neither Willis nor any other department employee can be terminated without due process.” At the same time, the board agreed to incorporate into Willis’s ongoing performance review further specific “direction or redirection” with regard to his management of the department.
On September 18, the Big Bear Community Services District Board of Directors made a concession to the firefighters union in the form of its appointment, by vote of 2-to-1, with Director Bob Rowe abstaining, to appoint Mike Eagleson, a former firefighter who worked for the Foothill Fire District and Rancho Cucamonga Fire Department and was once a public safety union representative, to fill the gap within its ranks created with the death of former Director Green. Eagleson, was endorsed for the board appointment by the Big Bear Professional Firefighters Association. It was thought that Eagleson, who is now an attorney specializing in labor relations, would be able to forge some form of accommodation between the firefighters and their chief.
In October, through what was interpreted by many as an indication of Eagleson’s hand in smoothing relations between the warring parties, a release of information was made pertaining to negotiations that had taken place in the back channels between Big Bear Lake City Hall, Big Bear City Community Services District Headquarters, Big Bear Fire Station 281 in Big Bear Lake and Big Bear Fire Station 282 in Big Bear City and the upshot of what had been agreed to during those exchanges. It was made clear that the Big Bear Fire Authority had every intention of honoring Willis’s current contract, under which he is to remain as fire chief until June 30, 2025. At the same time, the fire authority board acknowledged the firefighters’ concerns relating to “strained relationships among employees” while simultaneously alluding to “the challenging financial realities faced by the fire authority.” The statement owned up to “the board’s responsibility to ensure all fire authority employees from fire chief to firefighter are afforded every reasonable opportunity to perform successfully in their roles.”
In a rare identification of the specifics dealt with in the board’s closed session discussions pertaining to what are traditionally and by law considered to be confidential personnel matters, the statement attributed to the fire authority board disclosed that throughout the remainder of the 2023-24 governmental cycle, Willis had been tasked to improve the fire department’s financial prospects, improve his relationship with the department’s firefighters and his means of communication and adhering to department goals, as well as improve the department’s commitment to community safety and maintaining the public’s faith in the department.
The fire authority board committed to monitoring the situation closely going forward.
In the month since then, there have been indications that the once hard-edged relationship between Willis and the department’s firefighters has softened. While there has been no explicit statement to indicate the fire authority is committed toward working to create three-member crews, that goal is one all concerned are conscious of. There is a suggestion, again not explicit but implicit, that the understanding is Willis will retire in June 2025 and that three-member crews will be put into place sometime after that.
Perhaps because of Eagleson’s intercession, there is also some order of commitment toward obtaining, where possible and affordable, new equipment.
Looming into focus, as well, is that at least some of the agitation and discontent, vectored primarily at Willis and including the vote of no confidence in him, was a function of the union’s strategy to obtain better terms during its now-concluded contract negotiations.
Members of the department have reached varying modi vivendi with Willis. All of the department’s members recognize that he is to remain as fire chief for the next 18 months and all, or virtually all, of them have come to terms with that reality and that they will have to make do with him. Most have accepted that, begrudgingly. A few, however, are actually looking forward to, or have already embarked on, a personable and even close relationship with the chief. Those are the members of the department who stand a chance of succeeding Willis as fire chief. They see for themselves and their families a personal benefit to getting along with him. A dividend, or possible dividend, from that would be Willis’s recommendation to the fire authority board that one of those firefighters who has now befriended him be elevated to fire chief upon his retirement.
It is unclear as to how many among the fire authority board’s members recognize the cynical manner in which the firefighters and their union utilized the dispute they had, or at least represented they had, with Willis to angle for better pay and better terms in their current employment contract.
Early this month, for a reason that is not yet entirely clear, Big Bear Councilman Rick Herrick called for reexamining whether the City of Big Bear Lake should remain as a member of the Big Bear Fire Protection District/Fire Authority and continue to utilize the Big Bear Fire Department as the city’s fire department.
Herrick has made clear he believes city officials should catalog through the city’s options in terms of what available agencies could provide the city with fire safety and suppression service. On the table would be the city continuing as is in partnership with the Big Bear City Community Services District in operating the Big Bear Fire Department under the auspices of the Big Bear Fire Authority; ending the city’s arrangement with the Big Bear Fire Authority and reestablishing a standalone municipal fire department; ending the city’s arrangement with the Big Bear Fire Authority and contracting with the San Bernardino County Fire Department for fire protection; or ending the city’s arrangement with the Big Bear Fire Authority and contracting with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, for fire safety service.
Herrick has publicly and somewhat politicly referenced the issues raised by the vote of no confidence in Willis and the personnel issues that action represented as well as questions with regard to the financial integrity of the fire authority as the reasons for reexamining the city’s relationship to the fire authority.
A deeper reading of the situation indicates the reason for and purpose of divorcing the city from the authority extends to the comportment of the department’s rank and file over the last several six months and going back more than three years vis-à-vis the public histrionics relating to Willis and the spectacle of the tail wagging the dog, as the firefighters openly questioned the leadership and authority of the fire chief, who, in actuality, was merely doing the best he could with the resources available to him to meet the expectations of the fire authority board. The firefighters’ defiance of Willis was, by extension, a show not just of disrespect toward the board but a lack of understanding and appreciation of financial reality, specifically that fire department operations are extremely costly and the money to run a fire department is hard to come by, some people perceive.
Recent statements by Jon Bidwell, the president of the Big Bear Professional Firefighters Association, which seemed to suggest that the contretemps between the firefighters and Willis was merely part of a strategy to gain leverage at the contract bargaining table did not enhance the firefighters in the estimation of public officials who have been put into office by their constituents to safeguard the public. That the firefighters were willing to use such tactics in the contract talks is taken as a sign that the firefighters’ first priority is not public safety, which, to some members of the community, is grounds to look elsewhere for personnel to man the city’s fire station.