State: Camas violated firefighter safety laws

Investigators deliver initial findings on Feb. 14 house fire, union complaint

A Feb. 14 fire at this Camas home prompted an ongoing dispute over the Camas-Washougal Fire Department's staffing levels.) (Contributed photo courtesy of Camas-Washougal Fire Department

Officials from the Washington Department of Labor and Industry have delivered their initial findings regarding workplace safety within the Camas-Washougal Fire Department.

Adam Brice, president of the local firefighters’ union, the East Clark Professional Fire Fighters, said state investigators have determined the city of Camas and its fire department violated “two serious and one standard” workplace safety laws during a Feb. 14 house fire in Camas’ Northwest Prune Hill neighborhood.

“The biggest surprise was the fact that we had to go to this length,” Brice told The Post-Record on May 10. “It was pretty clear that what happened that day was a clear violation.”

When firefighters responded to the Feb. 14 fire, they were not responding to a 911 call. Rather, the home’s automatic fire alarm system had generated the call.

The source of the call matters in Camas, where city leaders say a “high percentage” of alarm-generated calls turn out to be false alarms.

Those “false alarms” are why, instead of sending eight or more firefighters — standard for 911 calls to residential fires — CWFD typically dispatches one engine with two firefighters to alarm-generated calls.

The Feb. 14 fire, however, was not a false alarm, but a fire that had trapped a Camas man and his two pet dogs inside their home. Firefighters broke through an attached garage to save the man, Arthur Nichols, and one of his dogs. The responders later entered the home to rescue a second pet dog trapped inside.

Nichols, 76, died eight days after being rescued from the Valentine’s Day fire at his home.

No one publicly complained about the practice of sending only two firefighters to a house alarm call until after the Feb. 14 fire, but Brice said the issue has been an ongoing source of contention for union leaders and firefighters.

“It impacts our ability to provide service to the citizens,” Brice said. “We are advocates not only for the firefighters, but for the citizens we represent. We want to make sure our emergencies are taken seriously. That an emergency is considered an emergency until it is proven otherwise.”

According to Brice, state investigators say the city and fire department violated safe workplace laws on Feb. 14, by allowing firefighters “to enter a burning building without enough personnel on scene” and for failing “to utilize certain personal protective equipment in the smoke-filled atmosphere.”

Brice said the union believes this last violation was partially due to the fact that the department did not send an adequate number of firefighters to the fire.

In a press release sent to media late Thursday night, Brice said CWFD Chief Nick Swinhart had a chance to provide the state investigator “with actions that would be taken by the department to preclude the same violations from happening in the future,” but “failed to identify any changes.”

Swinhart said city leaders intend to file an appeal of the state findings.

In a press release sent to media Friday, Swinhart added that the city “is deeply concerned that (the state’s Labor and Industries department) intends to punish our personnel for heroically saving the life of one of our citizens.”

Brice said the investigators told union leaders the state would fine the city over the violations and that the fine amount would be determined within the next three weeks.

Following outcry over the two-person engine staffing, Camas leaders said they had changed the number of personnel on an engine, even for house alarm calls, by adding a battalion chief to the two-firefighter crew.

Brice said that doesn’t fix the problem.

“It’s a political change, not an operational change,” Brice told the Post-Record on Friday. “The battalion chiefs are command and control … they do 99 percent of their work in the command vehicle, so that’s not solving the problem, it’s just glossing over the problem.”

The industry standard is four firefighters per engine, even for cities the size of Camas and Washougal, Brice added. And that is what firefighter union heads would ultimately like to see as standard for the CWFD. Having three firefighters per engine would be a good start, according to firefighters and union representatives who have spoken to Camas city leaders at recent city council meetings.

Over the past decade, as Camas has increased its population base and planned major developments in the city’s northern region, the CWFD’s staffing levels have stagnated. At the same time, calls for service are on the increase, with the number of emergency medical service calls coming into the CWFD jumping from 2,693 calls in 2008 to 3,630 calls in 2017 — a 35 percent increase — and fire calls jumping from just under 100 calls in 2008 to more than 140 in 2017.

In April, Swinhart said staffing three people on each engine at all three of Camas’ fire stations would require the city to add an additional 12 to 15 full-time responders at a cost of about $1.3 million per year in additional salary and benefit costs, plus any additional equipment required for the new firefighters.

The fire chief told city council members and Camas Mayor Scott Higgins in April that an even bigger problem may be the situation at the Grass Valley Fire Station 42 in north Camas, which requires responders to effectively “pick” which vehicle — the fire engine or the ambulance — they need for each call.

“Cross-staffing of Station 42 has presented one of the largest challenges since it was built in 2001,” Swinhart said. “Since this station responds on medical calls over 80 percent of the time, their engine remains unstaffed for the duration of those calls. This may cause increased response times as the next unit has to come from Vancouver, downtown Camas or even Washougal.”

To address the cross-staffing at Station 42, the city would need to hire an additional eight to nine responders, at an annual cost of about $850,000, Swinhart said.

For city leaders to eliminate the cross-staffing at Station 42 and ensure a three-person engine company at all three stations, the city would have to hire 17 to 20 full-time firefighters at a cost of $1.8 million each year.

Brice said the firefighters’ ultimate goal is to come to a resolution that keeps firefighters safe on the job and provides the level of service that people in Camas-Washougal expect.

“In Southwest Washington, we really have an issue that we need to address,” Brice said of the fire engine staffing levels in Camas-Washougal and throughout Clark County. “In the end, our goal is to come to resolution where we can provide a valuable service the people want and deserve and do that in a manner that keeps our firefighters safe. We harp on industry standards and scientific standards because we have evidence that we need to have more firefighters on our engines,” Brice said. “We’ve only heard rhetoric from the other side.”

Swinhart said CWFD and city of Camas leaders take firefighter and citizen safety issues seriously and are currently evaluating future fire department staffing needs.

The fire chief added that the recent findings regarding safety violations are troubling to city administrators.

“This is a wide reaching and troubling stance by the state oversight agency. In effect they are stating that all fire departments in the State of Washington are hereafter prohibited from saving a life if they do not have at least (three) personnel on scene,” Swinhart stated in his press release. “This chilling order could cost Washington fire departments hundreds of millions of dollars and will cause citizens to lose their lives. This was not the original intent of state safety rules, and indeed there have been other fire departments evaluated under nearly identical circumstances that were not cited. We believe state code provides a specific exemption for the actions of our firefighters.”