How does a growing city address the possibility of increased fire and emergency medical service (EMS) calls without taxing its current system or going overboard by spending millions on future stations that may or may not be needed?
It’s a question Camas leaders have been trying to address for years.
One possible solution is to combine forces with nearby neighbors and take advantage of shared resources and staff. Camas and Washougal fire departments have been working as one entity, the Camas-Washougal Fire Department (CWFD) since 2011, with an official 10-year merger agreement in place since the beginning of 2014.
Now, Camas leaders are considering another consolidation. This time, it would be Camas and East County Fire and Rescue (ECFR) combining forces to address increasing population growth and the possibility of increased fire and EMS calls in Camas’ burgeoning North Shore area, northeast of Lacamas Lake.
The two fire departments already have a few things in common: firefighters belong to the same union and Fire Chief Nick Swinhart oversees both CWFD and ECFR. He said consolidating forces isn’t unique to the Camas area.
“This is a trend that we’re seeing on a national basis,” Swinhart said. “There are efforts and pushes all over the country to consolidate and combine resources in an effort to increase efficiency, reduce duplication and save money.”
Looking at where Camas’ projected growth is expected — mainly in the Lacamas North Shore area, where a 460-acre mix of residential, commercial and industrial land is expected to help increase Camas’ population by more than 10,000 people in the next 15 years — it’s clear to see that Camas, which has two CWFD fire stations within its boundaries, including Station 41 in the city’s downtown core and Station 42 near the Camas-Vancouver border on the city’s western boundary, is going to need extra help reaching emergency medical and fire calls near Lacamas North Shore.
ECFR’s Station 91, located off Highway 500 near Camas’ northeastern boundary, is much closer to the North Shore area than Stations 41 and 42.
“You don’t have to be overly familiar with a map to ask, ‘Why would we build a new station if we already have a building that’s maybe half a mile away?'” Swinhart said. “Maybe if we have a positive partnership with our neighbors that already have well-established resources closer to that area, maybe we can provide needed resources for a lot less cost.”
Three scenarios on table for upping fire/EMS coverage near NE Camas boundary
Building a new station in northeast Camas would cost millions of dollars, Swinhart said.
Instead, Camas leaders are reviewing a recent cost-analysis put together by financial consultant Paul Lewis, a former finance director for the city of Vancouver who helped Camas and Washougal pencil out the Camas-Washougal fire departments merger in 2013.
Lewis presented three possible scenarios for a CWFD-ECFR consolidation to Camas City Council members in early December.
Scenario 1 would bring advanced life support (ALS) capabilities and require minimum staffing levels of one firefighter/paramedic and one full-time firefighter — including a fire captain — at to ECFR’s Station 91 near Camas’ northeastern boundary.
Scenario 2 calls for the same staffing levels and ALS supplies at Station 91, but would also move a reserve medic unit currently housed at CWFD’s Station 43 to Station 91, which would allow the station to send a medic unit or fire engine depending on the type of 911 call that came in.
Scenario 3 ramps up staffing at Station 91, by adding another full-time firefighter for Engine 91 and a full-time firefighter for the medic unit, giving the station a total of four staff members, including a fire captain. This scenario also moved the medic unit from Station 43 to Station 91.
All of the scenarios call for ECFR’s Station 94, located northeast of Washougal, in a low-call area, to be staffed with part-time firefighters plus volunteers.
Of the three options, Scenario 3 is by far the most costly, and would require new staff — six new full-time firefighters if done on an interim basis or nine new full-time firefighters if done permanently.
According to Lewis’ analysis, an interim consolidation using either Scenario 1 or 2 would cost about $43,000 in the first year. Scenario 3 would cost $730,000 in the first year, on a trial basis. For a permanent consolidation, Scenarios 1 and 2 would cost roughly $222,000, while Scenario 3, due to new hires, would cost about $1.25 million in the first year.
Local leaders to discuss issue at Jan. 26 planning conference
Swinhart said he sees pros and cons to each scenario.
Scenario 2, which would place a medic unit at Station 91, is “the one that makes the most sense on a trial basis,” he added. “To have a fully staffed paramedic unit here would cost a lot of money … and it makes sense to start slow and see how this works. This station (91) is still a relatively low call number station. We don’t need to fill the station right now. But the call volume may increase as North Shore grows.”
Knowing how to predict growth in the number of 911 emergency medical and fire calls is tricky, Swinhart said.
“An increase in population doesn’t always mean we get slammed with a whole bunch of calls,” he explained. “You can’t tie population with an increase in 911 calls because it depends on the demographics, and if you’re building schools and businesses.”
The fire chief pointed out that Aberdeen — the small Washington town where he spent the majority of his career before coming to Clark County — has fewer people than Camas, but a much higher volume of 911 calls.
“Due to declines in the timber and fishing industries, and high unemployment, there were more calls tied to drugs and gangs,” he explained. “So it’s hard to look at population growth and say, well, we know that population is increasing by 20 percent, so 911 calls will increase by 20 percent.”
Representatives from both cities, CWFD and ECFR will discuss the possibility of consolidation at the Camas City Council’s annual planning conference on Friday, Jan. 26, at the Lacamas Lodge. Current agendas show the fire department consolidation talk will be held at 3:30 p.m. that day.
In thinking about a possible consolidation, Swinhart said he believes his firefighters and paramedics would be able to make a pretty smooth transition.
“Our line members would be fine with it,” he said. “They’re already part of the same union and are already interacting out on the front lines … Sometimes, in our industry literature, you read about mergers in other places, other states, that literally end in fistfights because they can’t work well together. But we’ve never experienced that. When Camas and Washougal merged, it was seamless. I think the biggest challenge with that merger was trying to keep the elected officials on board and keep their buy-in. The crews meshed seamlessly because they had already worked together, and I think it would be seamless with (a possible ECFR and CWFD consolidation).”