Camas responds to firefighters’ safety complaint

Union president: Staff levels too low to fight fires, save lives

After a local firefighters’ union filed an “unsafe work environment” complaint with the state, claiming the Camas-Washougal Fire Department’s low staffing levels place firefighters at risk of not being able to save lives and fight fires, the city of Camas issued a statement explaining the fire department’s staffing levels, policies and protocol.

Camas City Administrator Pete Capell sent the city’s response to the East Clark Professional Fire Fighters’ complaint regarding staffing levels to media outlets on Monday afternoon.

“First and foremost, we would like to express how very proud we are of the hard work performed by all our emergency responders every day. They are a tremendous part of our community,” the city’s response states. “It is important to emphasize that no laws have been broken and no disciplinary action was or is going to be taken against the responders … we continue to welcome a conversation with both the East Clark Professional Fire Fighters as well as our Camas community.”

Adam Brice, president of the local firefighters’ union, filed a formal complaint with the Washington Department of Labor and Industries in late February, regarding what union leadership describes as an unsafe working environment for first responders working at the Camas-Washougal Fire Department (CWFD).

According to the union’s complaint, the local fire department has “substandard minimum apparatus staffing levels” that have created 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 states in the complaint. According to the union president, CWFD does not have enough firefighters responding to situations like a Feb. 14 fire, in which firefighters saved the life of an elderly man trapped in an attached garage.

Brice says that — with only two responders at the Feb. 14 fire — the firefighters were not adequately equipped to handle the rescue operation, which left a “single firefighter (to) search the garage,” for other possible victims while the second responder treated the first victim for smoke inhalation.

“The victim indicated that there were more lives to be saved in the garage but (the responders) were unable to determine the type of victim,” according to the complaint. “There was a single firefighter search of the garage, which resulted in the removal of at least one dog. A complete review of this incident was performed by CWFD with no report of policy/procedure violations.”

Brice adds that local 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 says, “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.'”

The firefighters’ union president says CWFD needs three firefighters on each fire engine to “locally conduct a rescue,” and four responders per engine “to put out the fire.”

Currently, there are sometimes only two firefighters on a responding engine, which Brice says is simply not enough people to do the job.

“We need to save lives,” Brice says. “We want to put out the fire.”

The man involved in the Feb. 14 house fire suffered from smoke inhalation. According to the city’s statement, the man later died, but his wife told the fire marshal “that firefighters’ response did not play a role in his death (and that) his passing was not preventable.”

City responds, says staffing levels depend on call initiation

City leaders say they stand behind the two firefighters who responded to the Feb. 14 house fire discussed in the union’s complaint to the state, but that the community should have a discussion about staffing fire engines with two firefighters versus three or four.

“Unknown to many, across the country, as in the Camas-Washougal area, a high percentage of notifications initiated by residential fire systems are false … for these reasons, in instances where a residential fire system triggers a smoke alarm, the procedure has been to dispatch one engine staffed with a two-person team,” the city states in its release sent out today. “In contrast, in instances where a 911 call is made — which are the majority of events in Camas and Washougal — a larger team of at least eight to 12 personnel respond.”

The Feb. 14 house fire off Northwest 27th Avenue in Camas came into the fire department as a residential fire system call, not a 911 call, according to city leaders.

City leaders say they will review the Feb. 14 event as part of the city’s biannual department review process when “evaluating staffing needs for the 2019-2020 budget,” but note that the number of personnel required to respond to emergencies — even house fires — is not established by law but rather by a community’s emergency response needs, history, finances and voter support.

The practices currently in place at CWFD, the city says, “are based in part on a history of very few fires in the community overall.”

City leaders note that, of the roughly 5,000 emergency calls fielded by local firefighters over the past five years, only about 20 percent required a fire response. The vast majority of the calls, city leaders say, were medical not fire emergencies.

“As a whole, the response times of CWFD are faster than both the regional and national average,” the city’s statement adds.

Staffing recommendation would cost about $1.5 million

If the city were to implement the firefighter union’s suggested minimum of three firefighters per engine on calls triggered by residential fire alarm systems, city leaders say they would have to add at least $1.5 million per year to the fire department’s $9.5 million budget. Camas would cover about 60 percent of that cost, with 40 percent coming from the city of Washougal.

To accommodate those costs, the city would likely need to cut existing city services or tax utilities. Voters also could decide to approve a sales tax to pay for the additional expenses and raise the emergency management services levy lid to $3.60, which means Camas and Washougal property owners would pay more for fire and emergency response services.

City leaders say they are open to discussing a need for increasing staffing levels at the CWFD, and urge interested community members and first responders to attend Camas City Council workshops and meetings, email their elected officials or send suggestions via email to comments@cityofcamas.us.