CWFD chief could soon oversee rural fire department operations

Another meeting to discuss an inter-local agreement will be held later this month

Nick Swinhart

Camas-Washougal Fire Department Chief Nick Swinhart could soon be adding to his list of duties the oversight of a neighboring rural fire district.

On March 28, the East County Fire and Rescue Commission held a workshop at Camas City Hall, also attended by Swinhart and Camas City Administrator Pete Capell, to discuss shared fire department administrative services.

The group discussed a draft version of a proposed interlocal agreement for fire chief administration and management services. According to Swinhart, the agreement is modeled closely after one that was used by the Riverside Fire Authority in Centralia, Washington, and the City of Chehalis.

As part of the proposal, Swinhart would provide functions to ECFR including assisting in budget development, financial management, personnel management and collective bargaining. He would also have authority over day-to-day operations, employee responsibilities, staffing, apparatus assignment, allocation of resources, and implementation of policies and procedures.

The document’s wording currently states that ECFR would pay 30 percent of Swinhart’s $10,946 monthly salary, while the City of Camas would pay 70 percent. However, Capell said more work to iron out the details of compensation, also factoring in the additional work that will be expected of other CWFD employees, including battalion chiefs, would need to be completed in the coming weeks.

“I don’t know if the 30-70 number is right,” Capell said. “I think it was an arbitrary number that was selected. I am going to propose how we could best fulfill this obligation, and it’s not going to be solely based on the fire chief’s time.”

The final agreement would likely give a specific dollar amount that would be paid by ECFR to Camas each month, as opposed to a percentage.

“A lot of the time, what happens is that the battalion chiefs are the ones who are working on day-to-day issues and the day-to-day direction, not the chief,” Capell said. “Obviously, they have guidance from the chief.”

During the workshop, the group also discussed plans to look at the policies of each organization and make an effort to line them up as much as possible.

“I think the biggest concern we have is the time commitment that the chief is going to have in providing this service, and will it take away from our obligation to Camas and Washougal,” Capell said. “If we were to open two more fire stations within our area, the added work for our fire chief would not be as great as it would be to take on your two stations presently because we have some different standards, different procedures, different policies. We don’t do things the same.”

ECFR has five stations. Two of them — one in Fern Prairie in Camas and one on Mount Norway in Washougal — are staffed full-time. A sixth satellite station in Bear Prairie was recently closed to prepare it for sale.

The proposed agreement also states that ECFR employees would still oversee the district’s accounting, payroll and human resources support. Each jurisdiction would hold on to its own income sources including property taxes, fees, donations and grants.

The role of ECFR’s volunteers would remain unchanged.

“Unless specifically designated, no rule regarding the volunteer organization, funding, duties or operations, shall be modified by virtue of providing services by the fire chief, without action taken by each respective department,” the draft agreement states.

If approved by the ECFR commission and Camas Mayor Scott Higgins, the agreement would be in place for a one year trial period.

“If it’s not working, we have the one year limit in there,” said Interim ECFR Chief Al Gillespie. [That provides an opportunity to say] OK, let’s make some adjustments on where we are at, or this isn’t going to be a good thing for either of us at this point. I think there are a lot of protections for both sides.”

The agreement could also be terminated by either party with 60 days notice, or earlier if both parties agree.

Gillespie was hired in November 2015 to temporarily lead ECFR following the retirement of Interim Chief Dean Thornberry.

Gillespie’s contract, which has him earning $11,500 per month, was negotiated through ECFR consultant Emergency Services Consulting International and runs through the end of April.

“I am glad we are at this point; it’s been a long time coming,” said ECFR Commissioner Mike Berg, who works for the Vancouver Fire Department. “I think in my lifetime I’ve seen more fire departments merge in the county, forming a larger base. I’m glad we’re here. It’s taken a while to get here.”

If the agreement is approved, Capell explained there are benefits to both jurisdictions.

“The mutual benefit is you’d be spending far less than if you hired a full-time salaried chief with benefits, and there is a little bit of salary savings that would come back to Camas-Washougal that would be shared on our split ratio,” he told the ECFR commissioners. “It could be a win-win. If the responsibilities are shared, I think it could be successful.”

Adam Brice is president of the IAFF Local 2444 East Clark Professional Fire Fighters. The union represents the paid personnel of ECFR and the CWFD.

“We are looking forward to working with you on advancing this idea,” he said. “The thing that would facilitate movement forward as seamlessly as possible is a clear description of how this is going to effect the two bargaining units that I represent, the duties that are going to be acquired by the bargaining unit in Camas, and the potential duties that could be relinquished by the bargaining unit at East County Fire and Rescue.”

Gillespie suggested those issues could be addressed through a memorandum of understanding with the union.

A meeting involving ECFR commissioners and members of the Camas City Council to discuss the proposed inter-local agreement will be scheduled within the next two to three weeks.

ECFR, with nine full-time and five part-time paid firefighters, in addition to 28 volunteers, responds to approximately 950 calls per year in the unincorporated areas north and east of the cities of Camas and Washougal.

The area’s residents also receive advanced life support paramedic response from the CWFD through a mutual-aid agreement that is funded by an emergency medical services levy approved by voters that has been in place for more than 40 years.

The CWFD includes 47 full-time and 21 volunteer firefighters that provide fire and emergency medical services from three stations — two in Camas and one in Washougal.

CWFD covers 20 square miles and more than 33,000 citizens for fire protection and approximately 80 square miles containing 65,000 citizens for paramedic services. The department responds to an average of 5,000 fire and medical calls annually.

ECFR Commission President Martha Martin described the action that could be taken through the inter-local agreement as “baby steps” in a positive direction.

“We are taking this slowly, and carefully, and developing relationships.”