PORT ORCHARD — While the print version of our newspaper was on hiatus, a significant transition in the South Kitsap community took place. South Kitsap Fire and Rescue’s Chief Steve Wright decided to hang up his firefighter’s hat and head out the door of his Station 8 headquarters on Fircrest Drive for new challenges afforded by retirement.
Eschewing a leisurely life of outdoor hikes and adventures, Wright quickly transitioned to a new job as executive director of the Washington State Association of Fire Chiefs. An SKFR veteran since 1986, he’s been a visible spokesman in the community for the public agency.
But despite taking on a new role in Olympia, Wright continues to live with his family in Olalla while commuting to his new headquarters. He’s firmly rooted in South Kitsap and is the scoutmaster for BSA Troop 1529 in Port Orchard.
An affable straight-shooter with a steady grip on the wheel at SKFR since taking over in 2014, Wright guided the fire department through lean times following the Great Recession more than a decade ago. He stabilized the agency’s budget five years ago by making some gut-wrenching changes that included career staff layoffs and the closure of three fire stations.
Wright addressed SKFR’s aging, costly firefighting equipment and apparatus — some of its rolling stock was more than a quarter-century old. Despite the best efforts of the department’s mechanics, some of the equipment racked up towing bills when they wouldn’t start.
With the region having just recovered from the economic downturn, the fire chief made the difficult decision to ask the district’s residents to approve a $4.9 million bond measure to upgrade SKFR’s fleet, fire and safety equipment. While it was a heady move at the time, Wright’s ask from voters was prudent; With 117 square miles to cover and more than 72,000 South Kitsap residents and property to protect, he knew that delaying the inevitable would put essential services — and lives — at risk.
Armed with facts and data, the fire chief went out into the South Kitsap community to share his vision with voters. Speaking to just about every civic group in the area, he also listened to the concerns of residents — even those who were the most vocal about their opposition to rising property taxes. At election time, Wright’s ask was granted by voters, who several months later welcomed state-of-the-art firefighting equipment to the streets and fire stations of the district.
He also took steps to return the fire district to its pre-reduction state with a fire and emergency medical services levy renewal measure in 2017 that provided the district with three-quarters of its operational funding.
Wright also deftly handled a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against one of SKFR’s battalion chiefs in 2018. Michael Wernet was accused by two female firefighters of allegedly creating a hostile work environment by making inappropriate sexual comments with the women present and also sharing racially insensitive comments with one of the female firefighters.
The fire chief quickly engaged the services of an independent investigator, whose interviews unveiled information that supported the firefighters’ claims. Wernet, who had been placed on administrative leave while the investigation progressed, was eligible for retirement, and he took that option rather than be terminated for cause by Wright.
Just before Wright left the district, he collaborated with Chief-Designate Jeff Faucett (then assistant chief) and Deputy Chief Guy Dalrymple to come up with a plan to address the growing needs of the South Kitsap community.
SKFR’s leadership team and the fire district’s board of commissioners subsequently agreed to place a $39.5 million capital facilities bond measure before voters on the Nov. 3 general election ballot. The bond, if approved by voters, will fund the construction of three new fire stations and a public safety complex.
As was the case with SKFR’s antiquated equipment, its fire stations have passed their expiration date of effectiveness, many having been built in the 1960s and no longer meeting safety and operational standards.
South Kitsap is fortunate to have had excellent candidates in waiting to replace Wright. When the fire district’s board of commissioners selected Faucett, they also tabbed a longtime area resident, who lives with his family in Manchester. And like Wright, Faucett comes from a family imbued in the firefighting credo of hard work and public service.
When asked about taking on the new role, the new fire chief said: “It’s a dream come true.”
As has been demonstrated by disasters across the globe — the Beirut chemical fire and explosion is the most recent vivid example — the work of firefighters is dangerous and not for the faint-hearted. Whether knocking down flames in a house fire or fighting to save the lives of residents experiencing a medical emergency, their dedication to performing a difficult mission is inspiring.
South Kitsap can give thanks and express its gratitude to both of these veterans in the firefighting business — one who will continue the fight for all of this state’s firefighters, and the other, who will continue on in an expanded role with the district.