The first time Zach Goodman addressed the Camas City Council about firefighter safety was in March 2018, just a few weeks after a two-person Camas-Washougal firefighter crew had pulled a man and his dogs from a burning house.
“I’ve got to say, I’m second-guessing my decision to live here because of the two-person engine crews,” Goodman, a 14-year career firefighter and Camas resident, told city leaders in 2018. “A community like Camas, that is so desirable, especially to families, also has to be safe.”
That safety, Goodman and other firefighter professionals told city councilors in 2018, could only be achieved if city leaders took steps toward hiring enough firefighters to staff three- or four-person engine crews.
“We can save so many lives with three, and certainly with four (firefighters on an engine), instead of two,” Goodman said in 2018.
This week, Goodman again approached the Council. This time, he said, he was glad to see the release of a long-awaited master plan report on the Camas-Washougal Fire Department’s short-term, mid-term and long-term needs.
“I’m glad this plan is in place,” Goodman told council members Monday. “This is a tool to get the fire department where it needs to be.”
Don Bivins, a senior associate with Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI), and John Spencer, a financial analyst for ESCI, presented the 181-page master plan to Camas city councilors and the city’s new mayor at the Council’s workshop on Monday, Dec. 2.
The plan, Bivins said, was meant to show city leaders in Camas as well as Washougal what the joint Camas-Washougal Fire Department (CWFD) needs in terms of infrastructure and staff considering the community’s projected growth and increased volume of fire and emergency medical calls.
“We assessed current conditions, current structure and how population growth will impact risks to your community,” Bivins said. “Then we identified gaps and made recommendations to fill those gaps.”
The plan highlights several critical issues — including an average response time that is more than double the industry standard and the inability to respond to a two-story, single-family structure fire, even with mutual aid from other fire departments, within industry standards — and offers several short-term, mid-term and long-term solutions.
“The combined department is serving two growing cities, although at different paces and with different visions,” the plan’s authors state in the CWFD master plan report. “It is an agency stronger together than separate but challenged to meet the changing needs of the community in some aspects.”
The report calls staffing levels at CWFD “excessively lean” and says the department has “facilities that are in need of upgrade or replacement.”
Following are a few of the report’s highlights:
Demand for service is not overwhelming: Call volume at CWFD is “moderately high, but not alarmingly so,” the report states.
From 2014 to 2018, the CWFD had 16 percent more calls, with an average annual increase of 4 percent. During that same period, fire calls decreased by 6 percent, which indicates that other types of calls — vehicle accidents and emergency medical, for instance — accounted for a greater percentage of the annual call-volume increases.
Of the calls coming into CWFD from 2014 to 2018, the majority (72.1 percent) were for emergency medical services (EMS). Motor-vehicle collisions (MVC) accounted for 3.8 percent of calls, alarms made up 3.4 percent of the calls and fire calls accounted for 3 percent of the call volume. Calls deemed “other” accounted for a larger share of the call volume (17.7 percent) than MVC, fire and alarm calls combined.
The two “hot spots” for calls came from Washougal’s downtown area and the east side of Camas, the report states.
Response times not up to industry standards: The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) shows the best-practice response time for fire departments in urban areas with career staff like CWFD is one minute for EMS calls and one minute, 20 seconds for fire calls. CWFD, according to the master plan report, has an average response time of two minutes, 18 seconds.
Although the response times are more than double the industry standard, Bivins told Camas leaders Monday it isn’t surprising considering that less than 50 percent of the department’s service district can actually be reached within the industry’s four-minute travel time due to existing placement of fire stations and the local road network.
While things like roads, traffic, railway crossings and concurrent calls –which mean a crew may be on another call and not ready to go when another call comes in — impact travel time, other factors tend to influence slower turnout times, measured by the moment a call comes in to when the “wheels start turning” and the crew is en route to a call, Bivins said.
“Slow turnout times can be caused by a number of things,” he said, showing that factors such as a station’s layout, with crews having no “direct path” to response vehicles can contribute to slower times.
“CWFD has a slow turnout time compared to the industry standard,” the report states. “There are structural reasons turnout can be delayed, but much of it can also be crew driven.”
Bivins explained that, over time, some emergencies “become less emergent in the minds of firefighters” and crews can become “less motivated to move as quickly as they did earlier in their careers.”
Bivins said many times tracking response times on a quarterly basis and showing the results to every employee can help alleviate this common “less emergent emergencies” issue.
“Firefighters are highly, highly competitive and do not want to be the slowest compared to their counterparts in other (stations) or on another shift,” he said.
Ability to respond to structure fires is compromised: The report states that, even with aid from other agencies, “CWFD personnel … cannot achieve an effective response force for a typical, 2,000-square-foot, two-story, single-family dwelling without a basement, and no exposures (homes close enough to also catch fire) in eight minutes’ travel.
The industry standard is to have 16 firefighters on the scene of the moderate-risk structure fire described above in 8 minutes, Bivins said Monday.
“On your best day, you can’t do that,” he told city leaders. “You have to rely on mutual aid agencies including Vancouver Fire Department, East County Fire and Rescue and Skamania County.”
CWFD’s response times to moderate-risk structure fires are well over the industry standard even with aid from these other fire departments, however.
With mutual aid, and assuming all personnel are at the station and ready to respond, the report shows response times to moderate-risk structure fires in Camas-Washougal from 2014 to 2018 were, 90 percent of the time, 12 minutes and 23 seconds for the first unit to show up; 20 minutes and 29 seconds for the second unit to arrive; and as much as 34 minutes and five seconds for fourth unit to arrive at the scene of a four-alarm fire.
“That means the first unit is waiting an additional eight minutes to get that second unit there … and eight minutes is a really long time to wait for someone else to get there to do anything other than fight the fire from outside the building,” Bivins said.
This point is important in Camas. In 2018, following the Valentine’s Day fire that forced two firefighters to evacuate a man — who died less than two weeks later — and his dogs without any backup, the state fined the city of Camas for not having a minimum of two people inside the structure fire and one person outside.
The department had been using two-person crews on engines responding to alarm-generated — as opposed to 911-call generated — fire calls since the most of those calls turned out to be false alarms, but continuing that practice put the department at risk for another situation like the Valentine’s Day fire and could have meant the two-person crew would be waiting eight minutes for a second unit to arrive before going inside to rescue people or pets.
Remedies in the report include relocating fire stations, utilizing “peak demand unit” and pumping up volunteer recruitment/retention. Those remedies are divided into short-term, mid-term and long-term strategies:
Some of the short-term strategies (to be completed in one to two years) include: installing personal protective equipment extractors — used for washing fire gear — and direct-exhaust capture systems at all CWFD stations; developing response plans for local hazards that pose significant risks to first responders and citizens; revising vacation schedules to limit the number of firefighters who are off at one time; developing a financial forecast to show the department’s staffing, equipment and facilities needs; update a building replacement and refurbishing plan; and completing a community risk assessment and risk-reduction plan.
Another short-term recommendation calls for adding 2.66 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff per shift at Station 42 to eliminate cross-staffing and adding 1.33 FTE per shift at Stations 41, 42 and 43 to increase engine crews to three people for all calls.
The report’s mid-term strategies call for things meant to be accomplished in three to five years. Those include: implementing a two-person, 12-hour-shift “peak-demand unit” to help respond to calls during critical “peak hour” times — typically during the daytime hours — or when regular crews are training or out of service; obtaining a ladder truck capable of reaching a 100-foot building; and implementing a national concept known as the Community Risk Reduction, which partners the fire department with community members, nonprofits and private businesses and industries to reduce risks to the community.
Another mid-term strategy outlined in the report has to do with retaining and recruiting volunteer firefighters to CWFD.
“The department has been criticized for having a volunteer program in name only, allowing it to degrade by neglect,” the report states. “ESCI saw no evidence of this while on-site; however, we also saw no champion for the program.”
CWFD currently has 15 volunteer firefighters in its program, according to the report, but should aim to have 30 volunteers, most of whom will likely be people on a career-firefighter path.
“Most (fire department volunteers) get into volunteering because they want to get into career firefighting,” Bivins told city leaders. “You can target that demographic and recognize that you’ll have them for a certain number of years and then they’ll be gone. That’s OK as long as you continue to recruit and backfill those positions.”
The report’s long-term strategies, which are defined as those taking longer than five years and possibly longer than 10 years to implement, deal with relocating or refurbishing the department’s fire stations.
“Given the projected growth in population and call volume, CWFD will have structural gaps in place in the response system,” the report states. “One such gap that exists today is response travel times to the (North Shore)/Green Mountain area, Prune Hill (and) the southeast side of Lacamas Lake (in Camas) and the east side of Washougal.”
The report’s authors recommend Camas city leaders purchase property sooner rather than later within one-quarter mile of the Ingle Road-Goodwin Road intersection in order to someday build a fire station that will serve the city’s North Shore/Green Mountain area.
“It would be proactive to secure land in advance of growing demand and avoid having to consider exercising eminent domain,” the report states. “The property should be large enough (about 1.5 acres) to provide for a station with at least two apparatus bays and crew quarters to house two units, with expansion potential for a third in the distant future.”
The report also recommends relocating Station 41 from downtown Camas to a location within a quarter of a mile from Crown Park to better serve Prune Hill and the southeast side of Lacamas Lake; and relocating Station 43 in Washougal to the area near “G” and Ninth streets to serve that city’s northwest area.
Financial considerations and next steps
Spencer outlined the report’s financial summary for Camas councilors Monday, and said the main problem with holding expenses down stems from the fact that the majority of expenses (85 percent) are for personnel and that having highly trained firefighters — many of whom also are paramedics or emergency medical technicians (EMTs) — in “a union environment” is costly.
“Right now, you are paying about $150,000 (per year) per (firefighter),” Spencer said. “When you look at your expense projections, 85 percent are salaries and benefits … and they are increasing at a rate of 10 percent a year.”
Spencer pointed out that new personnel added in 2019 accounted for some of the growth in salaries and benefits, and that the purchases of an ambulance and self-contained breathing apparatus in 2019 also contributed to an uptick in supplies and capital/debt.
Revenues also have increased during that same time, going up 73 percent from 2014 to 2019 “thanks in large part to climbing property taxes and increased ambulance fees,” according to the report. “The property tax increases were due to annexations, a levy renewal at a higher rate and significant new construction.”
Ambulance fees also increased “substantially” in 2019, the report states, “due to a federal program designed to help ensure that Medicaid reimbursements fully compensate related ambulance expenses.”
Camas City Administrator Pete Capell said Monday, after the Council’s regular meeting, that Bivins is expected to present the CWFD master plan report to Washougal City Council member later this month and that members of the CWFD Joint Policy Advisory Committee (JPAC) will discuss the report in January 2020.
To see a full copy of the report, or to watch the Dec. 2 presentation to the Camas City Council, visit the city of Camas’ website at cityofcamas.us and click on the “Minutes, Agendas and Videos” link under the “Your Government” tab at the top of the page, then on the Dec. 2, 2019 City Council Workshop meeting details link and, finally, on the link to the left of the master plan presentation to find the report document, or on the “video” link to the right of the presentation to watch the meeting.