Camas leaders say firefighter hires critical

Questions of funding, deal with Washougal remain

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A long, contentious debate — filled with passions, twists and finances — over hiring new firefighters at the Camas-Washougal Fire Department hit a conversation-stopper this week, after the majority of Camas City Council members agreed the hires are necessary and the city will have to find funding, even without Washougal’s 40 percent buy-in.

Camas Finance Director Cathy Huber-Nickerson presented Camas leaders with a narrowed list of decision points at the council’s Oct. 15 workshop. At the heart of the fire department budget package is the hiring of four new firefighters.

“From my point of view, this seems like a minimum,” Councilman Steve Hogan said.

Councilors debated whether the new hires would also have to be paramedics, or if they could get away with a less-costly firefighter/emergency medical technician (EMT) combination. They also deliberated future funding options, considering the new hires would require an annual salary commitment, not a one-time investment. Washougal recently said they would not be funding the 40 percent asked of them in the fire department’s inter-local agreement (ILA) the cities agreed to in 2013.

In the end, however, most council members said Camas had to hire the new firefighters and they could figure out the “how” later.

“I can’t not support this,” Councilman Greg Anderson said. “We need better service to our citizens.”

The four hires would cost the city $459,515 in 2019. The bulk of that is salary and benefits, meaning that figure would be largely consistent in years to come.

Washougal’s decision to not fund its 40 percent for the new hires — Washougal leaders said they cannot afford the extra expense at this time, which does not mean they don’t support the new firefighter additions — reneges on the inter-local agreement put in place in 2013 that combined the Camas and Washougal fire departments, and locked Camas into funding approximately 60 percent of the joint department, with Washougal funding the remaining 40 percent.

The agreement is set to expire in 2023, but the recent roadblock has pushed Camas leaders into giving the ILA another look. Any modification to the agreement would require majority approval from both city councils.

“Is this ILA going to be an ongoing, viable thing? I don’t know,” said Mayor Pro Tem Don Chaney at the Oct. 15 workshop. Chaney clarified Oct. 16 that he doubted this would be a wholesale deal breaker for the agreement, but that he believed the ILA did need to be revisited.

That conversation will come later, likely next year. In the meantime, the city will focus on keeping costs to a minimum. One idea, floated by Camas City Administrator Pete Capell, is to hire two firefighter-paramedics and two firefighter-EMTs, rather than four firefighter-paramedics. Firefighter-paramedics have one or two years of medical training and can do more advanced procedures, such as administering drugs or intravenous injections. Firefighter-EMTs receive lower salaries because they train for a much shorter time and essentially perform advanced first aid, according to Camas-Washougal Fire Department Chief Nick Swinhart.

Aside from the four new hires, the proposed fire department package for Camas’ 2019-20 budget includes new self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) equipment to replace those that are expiring, a brush truck and a deputy fire marshal hire.

The current SCBA equipment is expiring — making replacement necessary — and Washougal indicated they were willing to help find funding for the brush truck. The truck may also be funded by wildland fire reimbursement fees. These two investments amount to $480,000, according to the Camas presentation.

Swinhart said the deputy fire marshal hire, while not as flashy or tangible as frontline hires, also is necessary.

“We would do it as soon as the budget allows,” he said, when asked how urgent this need was. Swinhart said the speed of construction in Camas has taxed the fire department’s two fire marshals, leaving little time for them to review existing buildings. Swinhart provided an example of a long-uninspected space in which the sprinkler piping had been removed from the ceiling and set in a pile on the floor.

“All they can do is just barely keep up with new construction,” he said.

Hiring a new fire marshal would cost about $135,000 in 2019.

Anderson said, despite the financial questions about how to fund the new hires, in his mind the safety of firefighters and residents had to come first.

Camas-Washougal firefighters have been vocal about what they see as a critical need to increase staffing levels at the Camas-Washougal Fire Department.

As councilors and other city officials debated the hires at the Oct. 15 workshop, Adam Brice, president of East Clark County Professional Firefighters, sat nodding in agreement and listening intently in the audience.

As the meeting drew to a close, Brice carried his young, sleeping son to the podium and spoke to the city council.

“I just wanted to express my appreciation for the obvious attention that you’ve given the needs of the fire department,” Brice, who has been critical of city leaders in the past, said. “With this, I look forward to our labor group working with you in order to expand the services that we can provide and deal with some of the challenges that we have. I think we can do that collaboratively. We’re willing to contribute, just like you are, in making this service the best that we can provide to the citizens of Camas.”