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 May 31, the state clarified those violations and attached $2,400 penalties to the two serious offenses.
State says city policy increases firefighters’ risk of injuries
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.”
According to state fire safety regulations adopted under the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act of 1973, firefighters need to have at least four responders — two firefighters inside the building and two outside — to fight a structure fire. There is an exception to the code, which states that, “if, on arrival at the emergency scene, responders find a known rescue situation where immediate action could prevent the loss of life or serious injury, such action shall only be permitted when no less than three personnel (two inside and one outside) are present and equipped to provide emergency assistance or rescue of the team entering the hot zone.”
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
One day after the state handed down the penalties, Camas City Administrator Pete Capell said the city planned to appeal two of the three violations.
“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.
Firefighters: city’s ‘fix’ not solution
L&I investigators stated in the report issued last week 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. “We can’t expect a consistent response from a battalion chief. It’s 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.
“(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 bring message to community
The union leader said he and his firefighters want to sit down with city leaders and reach out to the public to help Camas-Washougal residents better 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.”
Over the past week, the firefighters have been approaching business leaders in downtown Camas, asking them to post bright yellow “I’m 4 More Firefighters” signs in their windows. The firefighters also reached out to residents and homeowners’ associations throughout Camas, letting them know about the state code violations and the union’s push for higher staffing levels.
On Monday, Brice and other members of the firefighters’ union attended the Camas City Council meeting to read sections of the state code regulating firefighter safety standards and to point out that they have been trying to reach out to city council members, but have yet to get a response.
“We’ve heard nothing come back from council,” Camas-Washougal Fire Department Capt. Kevin Bergstrom told Camas councilors and Mayor Scott Higgins on Monday night. “We are open to answering any questions.”
Brice and Bergstrom both voiced disappointment in the city’s response to the L&I violations in early May, when a city of Camas press release sent to media outlets throughout the region 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.”
On Monday night, Bergstrom brought the issue to the city council and mayor.
“I want to address something coming from city administrators — that the state is trying to punish firefighters (with the L&I violations),” Bergstrom said. “These laws were created to protect firefighters … not designed to punish anyone for the work that they do.”
City leaders also heard from IAFF 7th District Vice President Ricky Walsh on Monday night. Walsh told the council and mayor that he represents more than 11,000 firefighters throughout Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska.
Walsh reiterated that state code requires a minimum of three firefighters to enter a burning structure, even when a life is at risk, and told city leaders he hoped they would, as elected officials, reach out to firefighters and talk about staffing levels and safety requirements.
“I’m surprised by the silence by this body,” Walsh told the city council, adding that leaders from the IAFF 7th District were monitoring the situation in Camas. “You’re at the center of a big deal now.”
Brice said he hoped city leaders and the union could work together “to develop a vision” for firefighters working at the CWFD.
“With the massive expansion (in Camas), we haven’t seen significant changes in our response capabilities in 20 years,” Brice said.
The council remained silent on the firefighter staffing issue on Monday night, but Mayor Higgins said he wanted to assure everyone in the room that no one had been instructed to not talk to the firefighters or union representatives, as Walsh had suggested.
“The council is in the middle of looking at our city’s needs and the fire department’s needs are a part of that process,” Higgins said.