Dozens of Camas-Washougal firefighters, many sporting their union’s red and black International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) t-shirt, packed into a Camas City Council meeting Monday night to appeal directly to city leaders for help with a fire department they say is understaffed, underfunded and putting first responders — and Camas-Washougal residents — in danger.
Firefighter Dale McKenzie was one of several speakers who addressed Camas councilors on Monday. A veteran firefighter with more than 25 years’ worth of experience, McKenzie said he worries not only about his fellow and sister firefighters’ safety, but for his family, which includes a child who has special needs.
“What happens if there is a fire at my house and my wife is trying to get our son out of the house? What if, when these guys show up, they don’t have enough (firefighters) to help safely?” McKenzie asked councilors on Monday.
Like the other speakers who came to the council meeting, McKenzie said he wants to see the Camas-Washougal Fire Department (CWFD) move away from its policy of having only two firefighters responding to calls generated by home fire alarms, versus a 911 call.
CWFD Chief Nick Swinhart explained Tuesday that fire department commanders moved to the two-firefighters-and-one-engine model about three or four years ago, after commanders realized nearly 100 percent of the calls generated by home fire alarms turned out to be false alarms.
“We used to send an engine and a battalion chief to residential alarms,” Swinhart said. “But the command staff as a whole decided that the battalion chief was never needed (as most of the calls were false alarms).”
Instead, the fire department started sending one engine, with two firefighters on board, and no battalion chief to the rare house alarm fire calls.
For several years, the model worked. Crews of six to eight firefighters responded to 911 house fire calls, but only two firefighters on one engine showed up to the alarm-generated calls.
“The battalion chiefs were never needed,” Swinhart said. “After the fire on Valentine’s Day, we decided to revisit that.”
The Valentine’s Day fire, which eventually claimed the life of a Camas man, did not come to firefighters as a 911 call, but, rather, as a home fire alarm call.
When firefighters showed up, they quickly realized this was not the typical “false alarm.”
The two firefighters were able to pull the man and the family’s two dogs out of the burning home, but the man later died from complications caused by smoke inhalation.
About a week later, Adam Brice, president of the local firefighters’ union, filed a formal complaint with the Washington Department of Labor and Industries, stating that union leaders feel the local fire department’s low staffing levels have caused 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 stated in the complaint. According to the union president, CWFD 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 said, “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,” but want four responders per engine “to put out the fire.”
The firefighters and their supporters who spoke at Monday night’s city council meeting agreed with Brice’s complaint. Having a minimum of three firefighters would help, but they would really like to see at least four responders on each engine call.
Some veteran firefighters called out city leaders for promising increases in staffing levels throughout the years and not delivering. Most said they understood the city had funding constraints, but urged city councilors to help find a funding solution and hire more first responders for the local fire department.
Zach Goodman, a 13-year veteran firefighter, told councilors he had worked with two-person crews and three-person crews during his time as a firefighter in communities throughout Oregon.
“We can save so many lives with three, and certainly with four (firefighters on an engine), instead of two,” Goodman said.
He added that he had moved to Camas with his young family, including a 7-month-old baby, because the community appealed to him. But, recently, he has been rethinking that move.
“I’ve got to say, I’m second-guessing my decision to live here because of the two-person engine crews,” Goodman said. “A community like Camas, that is so desirable, especially to families, also has to be safe.”
Swinhart and Camas city leaders say they’ve already taken steps to address the firefighters’ concerns. For starters, the fire department has returned to its former practice of sending a battalion chief to calls generated by a home fire alarm.
“In the past, we’ve considered these types of calls not necessarily a fire … usually a false alarm,” Camas City Administrator Pete Capell said of the fire department’s response to alarm-generated calls. “Now (with the fatal Feb. 14 fire), we’ve been proven wrong. We’ve changed our policy so there will be at least three people with the battalion chief responding as well as the two-person (fire engine crew).”
Swinhart said he has been a longtime advocate for more firefighters at the CWFD, but understands the fire department is one of many asking city leaders for a finite amount of dollars.
The fire chief said he is well aware of the firefighters’ concerns and that he thought city leaders seemed to greet the speakers at Monday night’s meeting with an open mind. He added that it is good timing for a community discussion about staffing needs within various city departments.
City leaders are in the process of evaluating the city’s services, and reflecting on the fact that staffing levels have stayed stagnant in many departments while Camas’ population has continued to increase, Capell said.
“What we’re doing with every single department is looking at, what is the current level of service and what are our needs,” he added. “As we enter into the (2019-2020) budget process, we will prioritize what those needs are. Clearly, we are not going to be able to fund all of the needs … but are there some areas where we can have some cost savings or other revenue sources we can utilize? That’s what we’ll discuss.”
Swinhart plans to bring his staffing needs analysis to the city council on Monday, April 16.
Until then, if community members have questions or concerns about how the fire department conducts fire calls or staffs its fire engines, Swinhart encourages them to reach out to him for answers. The fire chief can be reached via email at NSwinhart@cityofcamas.us.