In about three weeks, East County Fire and Rescue will be operating with three fewer firefighters.
Following approval of the 2015 budget on Nov. 18, East County Fire and Rescue commissioners issued layoff notices for three firefighter positions.
The positions have been funded for the past three years through a Federal Emergency Management Agency Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant, which runs out at the end of this year. It would have required an additional $208,000 to continue to employ those firefighters.
“I wish I had better news in terms of available revenue and I certainly wish we had better news in terms of what we might do with the SAFER grant firefighters,” said Chief Scott Koehler.
According to the Clark County Assessor’s Office, the district can expect to see a 7.51 percent increase in tax revenue in 2015. Projections call for $1.79 million, which is up $95,500 from 2014.
However, a number of additional expenses — ranging from increasing vehicle maintenance costs to funding required by Clark County to purchase a new radio system — quickly eats up most of that increase.
“On the one hand, tentatively we get a little more income than we did last year,” Koehler said. “But on the other hand, our SAFER grant money is gone and some of our other revenues have diminished remarkably — timber tax being one of them. We’ve been delaying maintenance and it’s starting to show.
“As much as I’d like to keep all three firefighters, as much as I’d like to do something definitive about our apparatus, as much as I’d like to make sure the stations don’t deteriorate, we don’t have the money to do that and that’s a result of a downturn in the economy over many years,” he continued. “As we climb our way out of the economic downturn, we are doing the best we can to keep things rolling. It’s not where I’d like to be, but I think it’s the best we can do.”
The $2.55 million 2015 budget includes $640,315 in salary costs for six full-time firefighters, two full-time chief officers and one full-time office manager. There is also $154,589 to support the wages of five part-time firefighters.
These numbers include a cost of living adjustment for all full- and part-time ECFR employees of 2.6 percent — equal to approximately $15,421.
In addition, the six full-time ECFR employees represented by the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2444 will also receive an additional 7 percent raise, per the one year contract that was also approved by the ECFR commission Nov. 18. The impact to the budget will be approximately $18,300.
According to Adam R. Brice, IAFF Local 2444 president, the three positions in jeopardy were a priority during contract talks with district officials.
“Our goal going into the negotiations was to save the SAFER grant jobs,” he said. “The labor group would have been willing to concede quite a few gains that we made, if that was allowed to happen. But we were told there was no way.”
The union and the district then agreed to look at how ECFR paid firefighters’ wages compared to those of similar sized fire departments in Washington.
Brice said that when held up against four other departments, ECFR was 23 percent behind in salaries.
“There was a significant difference,” he said.
According to Brice, the union is still concerned about those now eliminated jobs.
“In the future, we are looking at any possible options when it comes to our ability to save the three SAFER grant positions, including evaluating the gains that we made, and the potential that those gains could help save positions,” he said.
The new union contract also stipulates that ECFR pays 100 percent of the cost of represented employees’ insurance premiums and 90 percent of the cost of eligible dependants’ insurance premiums.
In recent weeks, commissioners have discussed ways to potentially trim expenses and increase revenues. Ideas included eliminating one of the district’s paid chief positions, selling one or more of its six fire stations and eliminating some smaller expenses.
In the end, the approved budget did not reduce any administrative positions, but did include a reduction in commissioners’ meals, lodging and tuition expenses — from $5,500 to $2,700.
Currently, ECFR’s nine full-time and five part-time paid firefighters, along with approximately 50 volunteers, provide fire protection and emergency medical service response to the 10,000 residents who live within the 60 square miles of unincorporated areas that are north of and east of the cities of Camas and Washougal.
The district responded to 826 calls in 2013, 917 in 2012 and 888 in 2011.
Koehler said the impact of losing the three positions, which will occur as of Dec. 15, will be that there will be one less person to cover each shift.
“We will be more dependent on our college interns to help us maintain a presence. We will be dependent on part-timers to help us staff during the day. We will be asking the volunteers to do their part and then some to try to keep us whole at night,” he said. “The truth of the matter is, if we end up short on staffing then we will have to consider whether or not to cut back at [Mount Norway] Station 94.”
The majority of ECFR’s calls are responded to from Station 91 in Fern Prairie, making that facility’s staffing a priority.
“Can I guarantee you that Station 94 will be open 365 days next year? I cannot. Will we be empty 365 days next year? No, we will not. It will be somewhere in the middle,” Koehler said. “It will vary day-to-day, based on staffing.”