CWFD hires SAFER Grant employees

$490,000 in federal funding supports salaries and benefits for two years

The Camas-Washougal Fire Department recently welcomed to its ranks three new employees whose salaries and benefits are being funded through a federal grant.

Eric Bridges, Katie Linton and Matt Baldwin were all hired by the local department thanks to a $489,818 Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant, administered through the Department of Homeland Security, aimed at providing funding directly to fire departments to help increase the number of trained, front line firefighters.

Fire Chief Nick Swinhart said applications for the positions were received from more than 200 men and women, a figure that is actually lower than the number received during past recruitment efforts. He suggested the reduction could be due in part to requirements this time around for at least two years of fire fighting experience and a minimum EMT level certification.

The recruitment process included written and physical tests, as well as a panel interview. The top candidates were then tapped for one-on-one interviews with Swinhart, with three given conditional offers of employment pending successful medical exams, psychological screenings and background checks.

Bridges, Linton and Baldwin bring a diversity of experiences to the job.

“I think that will be good for us,” Swinhart said. “They come from a lot of different life experiences. It will be good for us, and good for them.”

• Bridges was born in Los Angeles but spent most of his life growing up in Vancouver. He moved to Las Vegas at the age of 25 to attend paramedic school. It was there that he met his wife, who was attending medical school. Eric returned to the Pacific Northwest when his wife started her residency at Oregon Health and Science University and shortly thereafter he landed at North Country EMS as a division chief.

• Linton was raised in rural Douglas County, Ore. Her exposure to the fire service started at a young age as her father was a volunteer firefighter. In high school Katie enjoyed being an exchange student in New Zealand and eventually went to Oregon State University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science and later her doctor of veterinary medicine. She’s been practicing as a veterinarian for the last five years. A couple of years ago she started volunteering at her local fire department and discovered a new passion and career path.

• Baldwin is a native resident of Camas and grew up in Fern Prairie. After graduating from Camas High School he received his bachelor’s degree from Multnomah University and moved overseas to work with youth in Eastern Europe. He’s worked as a youth pastor in Camas and also spent the last six years as a paraprofessional in the Camas School District working with special education students. After getting married, Matt and his wife moved to their home in Camas where he’s been a volunteer firefighter/EMT with the Camas-Washougal Fire Department for the past two years.

Prior to the three new employees’ arrival, Swinhart said the department had 4.5 fewer full-time employees than two years ago, which includes three positions not funded due to budget constraints.

In addition, Swinhart said overtime costs have increased due to multiple injuries and sickness and call volume that has jumped 10 percent in the past two years.

Impacts of filling three new positions, the first since 2009, will include a potential reduction in overtime and easing the scheduling process. He also said that the additional help could mean that when all three of its front-line ambulances are simultaneously out responding to emergency calls, the fourth backup ambulance would be more rapidly staffed.

“Every litte bit helps,” Swinhart said. “With the increases in call volume we’ve seen — up 20 percent in the past XX years — we can use the extra help.”

In June it was announced that the local fire department had earned the nearly half-million dollar grant to pay the salaries and benefits of three new firefighter/IV technicians for two years. During the grant period, layoffs and loss of employees due to attrition are not allowed. But unlike past years’ SAFER Grants, there is no requirement to maintain the additional personnel beyond the two-year time line.

On June 18, the city officially accepted the money by a 6-1 vote of the Camas City Council, with the stipulation that any offers of employment inform recipients that the positions are guaranteed only for the life of the grant. Don Chaney voted no on the resolution, explaining that he had some concerns about what will happen after the grant funding runs out.

Swinhart said focus has been placed on resolving this issue.

“We are continually evaluating the financial impacts that these [new positions] will have on us over the next two years, and especially when the grant period is over,” he said.

Possible scenarios that may free up some funding include improved assessed value rates, cost savings that will continue to be realized with the ongoing trial merger with the Washougal Fire Department, discussions with the IAFF Local 5 Union that could result in streamlining operations, and lastly the potential for some future retirements within the department.

“I think when you start looking all of these areas, I’m hopeful we can find some way to work this out,” Swinhart said.

Camas was one of 25 other fire departments from around the nation that received SAFER Grants during the 2011 award cycle. From Washington, recipients also included the Marysville Fire District ($546,000) and Ridgefield based Clark County Fire and Rescue ($464,361).