Fire department consolidation is official

Washougal firefighters will become Camas employees

Action by the Camas and Washougal city councils has made permanent a formerly temporary contract that has been more than two years in the making.

Last night, the Camas City Council unanimously approved an inter-local agreement with Washougal that officially establishes the consolidated Camas-Washougal Fire Department.

The Washougal City Council approved the same agreement, 6-1, last week.

For the past several months, an Ad Hoc Fire Consolidation Committee has guided the development of the agreement, focusing on hashing out key policy issues and creating a cost-sharing model.

The committee included Washougal City Councilors Connie Jo Freeman, Brent Boger and Dave Shoemaker, and Camas City Councilors Greg Anderson, Don Chaney and Linda Dietzman.

“Quite a team has been involved in putting together this document,” said Washougal City Administrator David Scott, during a recent joint meeting of the two city councils.

The 30-page document puts into place an initial 10-year contract, which automatically extends another 10 years in December 2023.

“This is a significant agreement,” Scott said. “The scope is significant; the costs are significant, and so a long duration was important to the ad hoc group.”

A termination clause allows the agreement to be cancelled at any time, by Camas or Washougal, without cause but with two years’ notice.

Camas is considered the lead agency in the effort. All employees of the Washougal Fire Department will become Camas employees. Fire Chief Nick Swinhart said there are 12 Washougal positions, but two are currently vacant and could be filled once the ILAs are in place.

Camas and Washougal are already part of the same union, East Clark Professional Firefighters Local 2444, and when Washougal employees become Camas employees they will receive the same benefits as their counterparts. Seniority will transfer.

“Camas will recognize Washougal employees as if they had been Camas employees for the full tenure of their time in Washougal,” Scott said.

All Washougal apparatus, vehicles and equipment will also be transferred to Camas. Camas would then be responsible for insurance, maintenance, repair and replacement expenses.

Established levels of service are expected to remain the same, and the cost to operate the department will be allocated using a formula that takes into consideration each city’s proportion of the total assessed value, population, and total calls for fire, EMS and ambulance transport service.

Based on 2012 and 2013 numbers, the allocation would be equivalent to 63 percent for Camas and 37 percent for Washougal.

During the trial operational consolidation period, which first began in July 2011, concerns have been raised about the ultimate fate of Washougal’s volunteer fire department, which currently includes approximately 30 members.

The new inter-local agreement states: “Volunteer firefighters shall continue to be utilized at or above the current level subject to the availability of trained volunteers to perform the desired services.”

The CWFD is also expected to conduct annual volunteer recruitment and training activities.

With the agreement, a Joint Policy Advisory Committee made up of city council members will convene at least annually to review Camas-Washougal Fire Department services and the ILA, and make any recommendations for changes.

Financial consultant Paul Lewis, hired to guide the cities through the consolidation process, emphasized that the agreement does not create a new separate legal or administrative entity.

“This isn’t creating a new entity,” he said. “It’s really a contract between the two cities to provide service.”

Camas Mayor Scott Higgins complimented all who have been involved in the process.

“It’s clearly a well-done document that we’ve found some good opportunities to improve on, and there may be more.”

Both city councils approve agreement

The Camas City Council unanimously approved the ILA last night. It was the culmination of many years of work by a variety of people.

“Everybody involved had a major piece of it, because for the most part people came in and kept an open mind,” said Anderson. “They didn’t only think of it from their point of view, so that was very refreshing to see. There was a lot of open-mindedness and a willingness to learn and listen. That doesn’t happen too often, sometimes.”

Councilman Steve Hogan said the process and the changes that have come as a result of it have led to an overall improved fire department.

“I think we all appreciate the effort everybody put in. Thank you,” Hogan said. “The community appreciates the service that’s provided and it’s a better service than it was before. There was a lot of patience and the ability to work through some tough issues.”

Following the meeting, IAFF Local 2444 outgoing President Kevin Bergstrom said he was happy to see the final agreement between the two cities come to a successful conclusion.

“It’s a relief that we can finally get back to business as usual,” he said, adding that with the ILA firmly in place, the departments long-term strategic planning process can finally begin.

Washougal approved the same ILA document on Dec. 9.

Washougal Councilman Paul Greenlee was the lone dissenting vote. He said he would have liked more time to consider the intricacies of the document and its short- and long-term impacts on the Washougal budget.

“Potentially, fire and EMS are the black hole which could swallow our budget,” he said. “I wanted more time to think through whether the contract had sufficient cost limitations built in.”

Councilman Dave Shoemaker, on the other hand, said he was impressed with the proposal.

“There is the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said. “The good in this one, far outweighs the bad and the ugly. It is probably the best way that we can accomplish what we want to accomplish, which is to improve the services we render and not break the city by doing it. This might be the only way we can do that.”

Trial consolidation has been successful

The operational consolidation was first pursued by Camas and Washougal as a way to pinpoint financial and process efficiencies and improve service levels within the fire departments.

Chief Swinhart said benefits that have be realized as a result of the endeavor include an increase in the minimum daily staffing from 2 to 4 at Washougal fire station 171, where a paramedical transport unit is now stationed 24-hours-a-day; improved training through the establishment of a training captain position; and expanded fire prevention and inspection programs in both cities.

In addition, he also mentioned that there has been a decrease in ambulance response times to serious medical calls in the eastern portion of the department’s service area.

“Our statistics have shown that an average of one call per day in 2012 consisted of serious medical calls in the eastern portion of Washougal that resulted in significantly decreased response times as a result of having that ambulance in Washougal,” Swinhart said. “So that is pretty substantial, from a medical perspective, being able to get to people as early as possible and provide them the best care. That is about one person per day that we are impacting their lives in a positive manner.”

He also pointed out that overtime expenditures for 2013 are currently under-budget in both cities.

“We believe the merger has definitely contributed to those changes and those lowering of expenditures below what we expected,” Swinhart said.