After more than four years on the job, the fire chief and marshal for Columbia Falls is out of a job.
City Manager Bill Shaw confirmed last week that Bob Webber’s last day of employment was June 16. Shaw said he couldn’t comment on the circumstances surrounding Webber’s termination, citing personnel privacy rights. He did say Webber was no longer on the county payroll, including any severance packages.
“He’s completely out of the picture,” Shaw said.
Webber came to Columbia Falls in April 2005 from his job as a battalion chief and assistant director of fire services for Pinkerton Government Services Inc., in El Segundo, Calif. He had more than 20 years professional firefighting experience.
Webber replaced Doug Nash, who was fired in October 2004 after spending his first eight months of employment on probationary status before he was let go over leadership issues.
Webber and Nash have been the only people to hold a paid position in the 19-person volunteer department, since the city switched from a volunteer chief with a stipend to a full-time paid position in 2003. Shaw said Webber’s current salary was around $56,000.
The department is run through a cooperative between the city and the Rural Fire Board, which pays for half of the chief’s salary. The department serves about 10,000 people, and has an expansive coverage area that is roughly bordered by the North Fork Road to the north, Whitefish’s jurisdiction to the west, Evergreen department’s area to the south and the Badrock Fire area to the east.
Shaw said the city is meeting with the Columbia Falls Volunteer Firefighters Association and the Rural Fire Board in the coming weeks to decide how to proceed.
“I’m pretty confident that the association, our rural partner and the council are going to want to keep the paid position,” Shaw said. “The job of a fire chief anymore is too complicated for a volunteer to cover all the work in addition to another full-time job.”
Shaw said he expected the hiring process to begin sometime this month, and thought it would take three to four months to complete. The position would hopefully be filled, he said, by December.
Assistant Fire Chief Jesse Best is the acting chief, Shaw said, and would likely be paid a stipend similar to the system used before 2003. He assured citizens that services would remain unaffected.
“Jessie has been in service a long time and most of the firemen we have have been doing this for eight to 10 years,” he said. “There will be no lapse in services where people won’t be getting what they expect or are accustomed to.”
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