Camas fire chief talks costs

He estimates $1.8 million per year for firefighters' staffing hopes

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Having spent the past few city council meetings hearing from dozens of local firefighters upset over what they feel is a severely understaffed fire department, city leaders in Camas this week learned the costs of increasing staffing levels for the Camas-Washougal Fire Department.

“While there are no federal or state laws that specify minimum staffing levels on engines, there are state (labor and industry) codes that reference minimum levels of staffing to perform certain tasks at an emergency scene,” Swinhart said Monday, at the council’s April 16 work session. “There are provisions in labor contract language that mandates a minimum staffing level of 11 per shift, but it does not address numbers of personnel on each unit.”

The Camas-Washougal Fire Department (CWFD) currently has 48 “front line” responders, and, according to Swinhart, typically operates with two people on an engine with two-person medic units responding to the same fire.

“This usually suffices,” Swinhart told the city councilors and Camas Mayor Scott Higgins Monday evening. “However, if a medic unit is already on another call, the first arriving engine may only have two personnel.”

That was the case on Feb. 14, when CWFD responders took a call for a house fire generated by a home alarm system. Although Swinhart has said the vast majority of alarm-generated calls are false alarms, the Valentine’s Day fire at a Camas residence turned out to be much more dire. When the two-person engine arrived at the scene, the firefighters quickly realized that, not only was the fire real, but a man was trapped in an attached garage and in need of immediate rescue.

Without backup, the two firefighters worked to rescue the man and his pet dogs.

About one week after the Valentine’s Day fire, Adam Brice, president of the local firefighters’ union, filed a formal complaint with the Washington Department of Labor and Industries, stating that union leaders feel the local fire department’s low staffing levels have caused an unsafe work environment.

“There is a daily threat to the working firefighters that they will be forced to face hazards and perform in hazardous environments,” Brice stated in the complaint. According to the union president, CWFD firefighters “have not been provided with resources that make it possible to legally enter and extinguish a burning building when the first engine arrives on scene.”

Even worse, he said, “firefighters have not been provided the resources to legally enter a burning building and rescue the citizens that we are here to serve. Our firefighters have been told by the city to act ‘in our best judgement.'”

Dozens of local firefighters and their supporters have since turned out to every Camas City Council meeting to voice their concerns about staffing levels. Most say a minimum of three firefighters on each engine call would help, but that they would really like to see at least four responders on each engine call.

Over the past decade, as Camas has increased its population base and planned major developments in the city’s northern region, the CWFD’s staffing levels have stagnated. At the same time, calls for service are on the increase, with the number of emergency medical service calls coming into the CWFD jumping from 2,693 calls in 2008 to 3,630 calls in 2017 — a 35 percent increase — and fire calls jumping from just under 100 calls in 2008 to more than 140 in 2017.

On Monday, Swinhart said four-person engine companies are more typical in larger metropolitan areas like Portland, and that even nearby Vancouver, which has roughly four times the population base of Camas-Washougal, “employs three-person engine staffing.”

To ensure three people on each engine at all three of Camas’ fire stations would require the city to add an additional 12 to 15 full-time responders at a cost of about $1.3 million per year in additional salary and benefit costs, plus any additional equipment required for the new firefighters.

But Swinhart says an even bigger problem may be the situation at the Grass Valley Fire Station 42 in north Camas, which requires responders to effectively “pick” which vehicle — the fire engine or the ambulance — they need for each call.

“Cross-staffing of Station 42 has presented one of the largest challenges since it was built in 2001,” Swinhart told councilors on Monday. “Since this station responds on medical calls over 80 percent of the time, their engine remains unstaffed for the duration of those calls. This may cause increased response times as the next unit has to come from Vancouver, downtown Camas or even Washougal.”

To address the cross-staffing at Station 42, the city would need to hire an additional eight to nine responders, at an annual cost of about $850,000, Swinhart said.

For city leaders to eliminate the cross-staffing at Station 42 and ensure a three-person engine company at all three stations, the city would have to hire 17 to 20 full-time firefighters at a cost of $1.8 million each year — a nearly 20-percent increase in the department’s annual $9.5 million operating budget.

Swinhart cautioned however, that, even if the city could find “unlimited funds,” the fire department currently has no space to accommodate an extra 17 to 20 people.

And, as Swinhart pointed out Monday, any increase in fire department staffing levels requires buy-in from the Washougal City Council, since the current fire department configuration means the city of Washougal would need to foot 40 percent of the costs.

In the end, Swinhart recommended that city leaders look into finding a way to eliminate the cross-staffing situation at Station 42 to help relieve staffing concerns and possibly help the department lower its response times.

“That’s not to say there’s no support for the other options,” Swinhart said. But his priority is on eliminating the cross-staffing at Station 42.

Several firefighters spoke to the city councilors and mayor at the end of the work session and reiterated their desire to see not only the cross-staffing problem eliminated at Station 42, but also at least three people per fire engine.

One possible option is to form some type of taxing district, like a regional fire authority, which could gain voter support for staffing increases and pass property tax levies.

Swinhart said Monday that he would like to see city and fire leaders discuss these issues at upcoming CWFD Joint Policy Advisory Committee (JPAC) meetings, where representatives from the cities of Camas and Washougal are equally represented.