Camas mulls hiring more firefighters

City could add four responders in 2019; decision part of ongoing budget talks

Signs supporting "more firefighters" at the Camas-Washougal Fire Department are displayed throughout the city of Camas, including the one shown here on Northeast Fourth Avenue near the Camas Hotel.

Following a seven-month, citywide debate over firefighter staffing levels, Camas leaders are considering hiring four new firefighters in 2019.

Camas City Administrator Pete Capell and Finance Director Cathy Huber Nickerson presented the idea to the Camas City Council at a workshop held Monday, Sept. 17.

The city council is expected to review the mayor’s recommended 2019-20 budget on Monday, Oct. 1.

The hires are projected to cost Camas about $251,000 in 2019 and $259,000 in 2020. Those figures represent 60 percent of the total cost, as the city of Washougal would need to approve the additions and foot the other 40 percent of the bill — bringing the annual combined sum closer to $500,000.

The Camas City Council is in the midst of its biennial budget process, and options for funding the new hires are still up in the air. City council members again floated new revenue stream ideas, including a $20 vehicle registration fee and potential utility taxes, at the Monday workshop.

Councilman Greg Anderson also requested staff estimate costs for hiring four firefighters in 2019 as well as four more in 2020.

At a city council meeting in April, Camas-Washougal Fire Chief Nick Swinhart said hiring an additional 17 to 20 full-time firefighters would eliminate cross-staffing issues at Fire Station 42 and ensure a three-person engine company for all three Camas stations. Those hires were estimated at $1.8 million a year, a number Swinhart said he knew would not be feasible for the city. In his formal budget request, Swinhart asked for four new front-line responders, and said the new hires would be a step in the right direction.

“Four is better than nothing,” Swinhart said. “I think that’s definitely a success.”

Adam Brice, East Clark Professional Fire Fighters union president, wasn’t quite so optimistic.

“Anything is better than nothing, but we’re not going to see a large impact,” Brice said. “Four firefighters would’ve been good 10 years ago. We’re so far behind right now that it’s going to take a lot for us to get to a point that we’re at a comfortable level of service and safety.”

Despite an increase in the city’s population, and a 35-percent increase in medical service calls between 2008 and 2017, firefighter staffing at the Camas-Washougal Fire Department, which currently has 48 front-line responders, has stagnated.

“Right now, it’s basically out of our hands — at least out of mine,” Swinhart said. “I’ll of course be available to answer any questions about how that staffing might be used, whether it’s appropriate, that kind of thing. But besides that, it’s up to the council now.”

Questions arose about the number of staff per engine following a Valentine’s Day fire at a residence in northwest Camas. Engine 43 arrived to the scene carrying only two firefighters, a workplace safety violation that resulted in $4,800 in fines for the city.

Members of the firefighters union and their supporters flooded city council meetings following the Feb. 14 fire, saying the department needed to have a minimum of three firefighters on each engine. Businesses and residents throughout Camas have since posted signs in windows and yards showing support for adding more firefighters to the Camas-Washougal Fire Department.