The Washington Department of Labor and Industry (L&I) has issued fines totalling $4,800 against the city of Camas for violating safe workplace standards and endangering Camas-Washougal Fire Department (CWFD) firefighters.
The fines and related safe-workplace violations are connected to a Feb. 14 house fire in Camas’ Northwest Prune Hill neighborhood, in which two CWFD firefighters entered a burning, smoke-filled house to rescue a man and his two dogs.
Adam Brice, president of East Clark Professional Fire Fighters, the local firefighters’ union, filed a complaint against the city on behalf of the firefighters in late February, and said the city’s policy of sending only two firefighters to a fire call violated the state’s workplace safety laws.
L&I officials agreed.
On May 10, the department issued three workplace safety violations against the city of Camas.
“The biggest surprise was the fact that we had to go to this length,” Brice said in early May. “It was pretty clear that what happened (on Feb. 14) was a clear violation.”
On Thursday, the state issued a clearer picture of those violations and attached $2,400 penalties to the two serious violations.
The first violation addressed the number of firefighters responding to the Feb. 14 house fire.
“Through the inspection process, it was determined that at the time of this residential fire alarm, and in the past, this fire department has been operating under the practice of sending two firefighters out on residential fire alarms,” L&I stated in its findings, now posted inside every CWFD fire station. “Having only two firefighters respond to residential alarms makes it impossible for firefighters to follow this rule when firefighters are required to enter the structure to perform rescue operations or fire fighting operations.”
The state officials determined that sending only two firefighters could “lead to employees being unable to conduct basic fire suppression and rescue activities and increase the risk of employees becoming injured during rescue operations.”
The second violation stemmed from the city’s failure to “ensure that respirators were used by all personnel working in areas where the atmosphere is hazardous as required by the standard,” according to the L&I findings.
“Lack of respiratory equipment use can result in inhalation exposure that cause serious illness and death,” investigators noted in the report.
A third, general violation, which came with no financial penalty, said CWFD firefighters “only have one set of standard turnout gear assigned to them (and) turnout gear needs to be washed and disinfected (after a fire fighting operation).”
Investigators did find secondary turnout gear at CWFD stations, but noted that most of that gear was “expired beyond (its) 10-year service life and not retired as the standard requires.”
City will appeal two of three violations
On Friday, Camas City Administrator Pete Capell said the city planned appeal two of the three violations. The city has 15 business days from May 24 to appeal the decision.
“The (state law) is very clear that there is an exception and this met that exception,” Capell said, referring to the provision of the law requiring two firefighters inside and one outside during fire rescue operations.
“We don’t argue that we did not have the ‘one out,’ but there is an exception if there are known, viable victims,” Capell said. “In this case, the firefighters were talking to a man inside the garage, so there was a viable life.”
Capell said he expects the city will be vindicated in its appeal.
“We don’t believe L&I did a good job of interpreting (the law),” Capell said.
He added that the city planned to appeal the general violation regarding turnout gear. The secondary turnouts noted in the L&I finding are expired, he said, but are not used in firefighting situations.
“They can’t be used for fires, but can be used for training purposes,” Capell explained. “They were not assigned to anybody and not being used by anybody other than for training.”
In its new contract with firefighters, city administrators agreed to fund two sets of turnouts for every new firefighter, and Capell said the fire department does have spare, unexpired sets in various sizes that firefighters can use if they happen to get called to a fire while their first set of turnout gear is being cleaned.
“We’re appealing that because we’re meeting the requirement,” Capell said. “Clearly, if someone was using (the expired) turnouts, that would be a violation on our part, but we have never done that.”
Capell added that the city would not appeal the violation or $2,400 penalty associated with the firefighters’ lack of respirator use, but would try to beef up training associated with the need to always use respirators when performing rescue operations.
“Everyone knows that, but we probably need to train some more,” Capell said. “We want to learn L&I investigators stated in the report issued Thursday that the violations no longer exist.
But Brice questions those statements.
“We will contact L&I to clarify where the corrections have taken place,” Brice said, adding that he does not believe the city has corrected the most serious violation — the fact that only two firefighters are being sent to house fires triggered by residential alarm systems.
City leaders have said they corrected this problem by adding a battalion chief to all fire engines responding to house fire alarm calls, but Brice argues that this does not fix the problem since the battalion chief stays at the downtown Camas station and is sometimes called out of the area for other work-related issues.
“Adding the battalion chief does not change the scenario at all,” Brice said Friday. “We can’t expect a consistent response from a battalion chief. It’s just not a realistic solution to the problem.”
The solution, Brice said, is to ensure that a minimum of three firefighters on a fire engine call.
That is something that city leaders have discussed, especially after the Feb. 14 fire. In March, Capell said that implementing a three-person team for all calls triggered by residential fire alarm systems — the majority of which, he added, are false alarms and not actual structure fires — would mean hiring 15 new firefighters at a cost of about $1.5 million per year to the CWFD’s $9.5 million budget. Camas would need to cover 60 percent of that cost, while Washougal picked up about 40 percent of the cost.
Funding for new firefighters could come from voter-approved models, such as implementing a sales tax or raising the levy lid and then paying higher property taxes. Camas city leaders also could vote to cut existing city services or implement utility taxes to raise revenues for the fire department.
“There isn’t a cheap fix,” Brice said on Friday. “But we have to put three firefighters on an engine.”
Capell said the majority of structure fire calls in Camas have at least four firefighters, if not more, responding. The city’s policy of sending only two firefighters to a call stems from data showing that most of the residential alarm-generated calls were false alarms.
“(Currently) 15 to 20 percent (of calls coming into the fire department) are fire-related, but only four to six are structure fires,” Capell said. “We may get a car fire or brush fire … but we don’t have many structure fires.”
What’s more, Capell added, many Camas homes now have sprinkler systems that help protect the structure in the event of a house fire. The city started requiring new developments to install fire sprinklers a couple years ago, Capell said.
Firefighters plan to bring message to community
The union leaders said he and his firefighters will be back in front of the Camas City Council next week to engage with city leaders and help the public understand the firefighters’ needs.
“We want to be more engaged with the citizens in Camas and Washougal so that they have the ability to understand our inability to respond in the capacity that they expect and deserve,” Brice said. “We don’t want to deal with the repercussions of not having enough firefighters on our engines.”
The union leader added that he disagreed with Camas city leaders’ initial response to the L&I violations in early May, which seemed to suggest that the state was punishing the firefighters who responded to the Feb. 14 house fire.
“The city was making it look like L&I was the villain, but that wasn’t the case,” Brice said Friday. “L&I are the people who protect our firefighters. They weren’t the villain. They were enforcing the laws that are in place … and they are appropriate laws.”
He added that the firefighters are bound by their employer’s rules — the city of Camas’ rules.
“Firefighters don’t have the ability to choose how many firefighters respond on our engines,” Brice said. “They’re given a set of options that they don’t have complete control over. We’ll stand by our firefighters when they make a good decision to save lives … and we were frustrated by the city’s press release that identified L&I as the villain when it was the city that was violating the law.”