Deputy Fire Chief: ‘We’ve squeezed until we can’t squeeze anymore’

East County Fire & Rescue asks voters to approve levy lid lift, maintain service levels

timestamp icon
category icon News
East County Fire and Rescue Fire Captain James Troutman (left) and part-time firefighter-EMT Nollan Charles (right) show the inner contents of ECFR Station 91's new $400,000 fire engine, purchased with equipment reserves. The district needed a new engine, but had tight budget constraints, so did not go for one with "all the bells and whistles," said Fire Chief Nick Swinhart (not pictured).

Caught between a state-mandated 1-percent cap on annual property tax increases and rapidly increasing costs, leaders in the East County Fire and Rescue (ECFR) District have decided to ask voters to approve a fire levy lid lift in the November general election.

“We have worked very hard to live within our means,” ECFR Deputy Fire Chief Mike Carnes said. “We’ve squeezed until we can’t squeeze anymore.”

Voters must decide if they are willing to pay a little more to help stabilize the district’s fire and emergency response capabilities.

“This isn’t going to expand much of anything, except some training,” Carnes said. “It’s really just to pay the bills.”

If approved, the lid lift would bring the district’s levy rate back to its original 2008 level of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value (APV), and cost an additional 21 cents per $1,000 APV over the current $1.29 per $1,000 rate. The owner of a $350,000 home would pay an extra $6.13 each month to maintain current levels of fire and emergency response service.

While property values have climbed in the fire district since 2008, the ECFR fire levy has declined, to limit revenue to roughly the same amount each year. The district can implement a 1-percent increase annually, but Carnes and ECFR Fire Chief Nick Swinhart said fixed costs within the district are rising much faster than the allowed 1-percent annual increase in revenue.

The district is doing more with its limited resources, Swinhart said, adding that ECFR calls have increased by about 52 percent over 2007 levels.

“The cost of providing services is getting more expensive,” Swinhart said. “I like to point out to people that, when we started our EMS levy here (in the late 1970s), the cost of an ambulance was about $35,000. Now, it’s over $200,000. But the EMS levy was 25 cents per $1,000 and now it’s 35 cents per $1,000.”

The district also has to contend with fewer volunteers and rely more on paid staff members to maintain service levels.

Currently, the fire district shares the costs of the fire chief (Swinhart) with Camas-Washougal Fire Department, and employs one deputy chief (Carnes); three captain-firefighters; six career firefighters; six part-time firefighters; and 3.5 administrative staffers. There are 18 volunteers, with 10 of those “in combat,” or working fire and emergency calls. All of the firefighters and volunteers must be trained as EMTs, and the district leaders said they try to entice college interns who are seeking careers in firefighting.

But the number of volunteers has decreased over the past several years, Carnes said. Having watched the numbers dwindle during his 22 years with the district, the deputy chief said he thinks it’s a blend of people having fewer hours to dedicate, working away from the area and for employers who aren’t as likely to let volunteer firefighter-EMTs leave work for an emergency call and the fact that the demands of the job have increased, as calls have swung away from structure fires and more toward emergency medical and accident response.

No matter the reason, the drop in volunteer power means higher salary and benefit expenses for the district.

Other fixed costs have also skyrocketed while the district’s fixed revenue has grown less than the costs of inflation. For example, the district’s utility costs have increased 18 percent in one year, and the cost for health insurance for district employees has increased 9.3 percent. Training for emergency personnel is 29.5 percent higher than the previous year. And higher call volumes mean more money for staff overtime — up by about 35 percent — and fuel for the emergency vehicles, up by nearly 24 percent over last year.

Service cuts likely if voters reject ballot measure

If voters approved the fire levy lid increase, ECFR leaders plan to use the new revenues to maintain emergency service levels, improve firefighter training, maintain facilities, and repair equipment and apparatus.

Carnes points out that the district has been operating under a strict budget for many years, passed every state audit and tried to avoid reaching out to taxpayers for more money.

“We have done everything possible to delay the need for a fire levy lid lift. However, call volumes have increased to the point that this is our only recourse,” Carnes said.

Carnes pointed out that the district recently improved its insurance rating with the Washington Surveying and Rating Bureau, saving home and business owners money on their annual insurance premiums. The fire chief said ECFR pays cash for its emergency equipment to avoid interest payments, and has paid off loans and refinanced bonds to save taxpayers about $250,000.

“We have looked for grants to help fund equipment … and partnering opportunities. But we can’t run in the red. We have to do the best we can with what we have. The levy lid increase would help us maintain our current level of service.”

With 60 square miles and 10,000 people in its service area, ECFR is a district with a wide variety of calls. Carnes said the vast majority of calls are medical-, not fire-related, but that firefighter-EMTs still need to be ready for structure fires, wildland fires, traffic accidents and a host of other fire or emergency medical calls.

When firefighters are not responding to a call, they are maintaining equipment, cleaning the fire stations and training. The levy lid lift would provide some money for staff training, Carnes said, adding that he would like to bring in experts or have his firefighters go to trainings out of district and then retrain ECFR staff members when they returned to keep up on the latest firefighting and rescue methods and best practices.

If voters do not approve the additional 21 cents per $1,000 APV, Carnes said district leaders would have to reevaluate ECFR operations.

“We would look at certain areas of the budget,” Swinhart added. “It is likely we would have trouble keeping stations open, especially Station 94.”

Cutting services could prove challenging in the already scaled-back district, according to the fire chiefs.

Of the district’s five physical fire stations, ECFR can only afford to staff Stations 91 and 94 on a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week basis. The other three stations are typically accessed by trained volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) who live close by.

Station 91, located off 267th Avenue in Camas, is the district’s busiest station and acts as the ECFR headquarters. The district remodeled and expanded the smaller Station 94, located on Southeast 352nd Avenue in Washougal, in 1996.

Cutting staff levels at Station 94 is a concern for Carnes and Swinhart, because the station serves a large swath of ECFR land north of Washougal that is not easy to access from the district’s main Station 91, thanks to just two Washougal River crossing points. Without Station 94 having a 24-7 staff, response times to the area would increase to as many as 20 to 25 minutes, depending on the area where the call was coming from.

“And that’s with lights and sirens on,” Carnes said.

For more information about the lid lift or the fire district, visit