Nearly one year after Camas-Washougal firefighters began calling for an increase in staffing levels at the local fire department, Camas City Council members have officially approved the hiring of two firefighters and one fire inspector in 2019.
The plan for two firefighters is half of what Camas city leaders had originally intended, and two city councilmembers — Greg Anderson and Deanna Rusch — said they still supported hiring four new firefighters and a fire inspector in 2019.
“I think we’re letting our citizens down by not … providing the level of services that we’ve heard they want,” Anderson said Monday, Jan. 7, at the council’s workshop.
The discrepancy between the council’s original plan — to hire four firefighters and a fire inspector — and the council’s majority decision on Monday to hire the fire inspector but only two firefighters stems from a disagreement with Washougal officials about that city’s role in funding the new positions.
Under the two cities’ shared fire department agreement, Camas pays about 60 percent of the fire department’s costs while Washougal foots 40 percent of the bill.
Camas councilors have been trying to respond to local firefighters, who say the Camas-Washougal Fire Department (CWFD) is seriously understaffed.
Over the past decade, as Camas has increased its population base and planned major developments in the city’s northern region, the fire department’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 fire department jumping from 2,693 calls in 2008 to 3,630 calls in 2017 — a 35 percent increase — and fire calls increasing by 40 percent, from 100 in 2008 to more than 140 in 2017.
Firefighters have urged city leaders in Camas to hire enough responders to staff every call with a minimum of three firefighters.
In April 2018, CWFD Fire Chief Nick Swinhart told Camas City Council members it would cost about $1.3 million per year to hire the 12 to 15 full-time responders needed to ensure three people on each engine at all three fire stations.
When Camas council members decided to greenlight the four firefighter and one fire inspector hires in the fall of 2018, members of the local firefighters’ union cheered the decision.
Then, Washougal leaders threw a wrench in the plans, saying their city could not afford to pay for 40 percent of the new hires’ costs. Washougal leaders did say they could pay for the related equipment expenses, but didn’t budge on salary and benefits costs.
Frustration built in the fall and, by the end of November 2018, some Camas leaders were talking about “unwinding” the joint fire department.
Washougal leaders now say they have found a way to pay for some of their share of the new hires. Using a fire reserve fund, Washougal city council members said they could afford to give $65,000, which would pay for 40 percent of the costs of two firefighters for three-fourths of 2019. The city leaders were not willing to make any promises for funding in 2020.
Camas City Administrator Pete Capell told Camas City Council members about the new Washougal payment plan on Monday, Jan. 7.
“As we move forward with JPAC (the fire department’s Joint Policy Advisory Committee) in 2019, we will be trying to reach agreement on what the funding needs are for the (fire) department and review the interlocal agreement and (Washougal) will figure out what they can do for 2020,” Capell said Monday.
In late December, Camas councilors approved a 2019-20 city budget that included funding mechanisms for hiring the originally planned four firefighters and fire inspector. On Monday, the councilors faced two options: Option 1 would allow council to fill two firefighter positions and pay the normal 60 percent of the costs with Washougal paying 40 percent of the costs for 2019 only, while Option 2 would have meant going ahead with the four firefighter and one fire inspector hires, knowing Washougal was only going to pay its share for two of the firefighters and for 2019 only.
Most of the city councilors agreed Option 1 sounded like the better plan, but also wanted to fund the entire cost of hiring a fire inspector, after hearing from Chief Swinhart that the fire marshal’s office says they can “just barely keep up with new construction” inspections and permits.
Councilwoman Bonnie Carter said she liked Option 1 the best and thought it showed appreciation for Washougal’s ability to shoulder some of the costs.
“I want to show respect to Washougal that they did come up with money for that first year,” Carter said.
“I’m leaning with Option 1,” Councilwoman Melissa Smith said. “Just because we have some monies right now to spend (on the four firefighters and fire inspector hires), I’m looking at the long-term and would like to see Washougal work hard to come up with extra money. I would rather be safe.”
Smith added that she was OK with Camas paying for the new fire inspector hire, because she realized the fire marshal’s office was falling behind on re-inspecting older buildings due to lack of staff.
Councilwoman Deanna Rusch said she still supported hiring all four firefighters plus the fire inspector.
“I’m still leaning toward Option 2,” Rusch said Monday. “I’m happy that we have some contribution (from Washougal) now. I think they’re trying.”
In the end, however, the majority of the council agreed to hire the fire inspector and two, not four, new firefighters in 2019.
Capell said Tuesday that the city will start the hiring process soon, in an effort to “have the firefighters on board by April 1.”
The department plans to hire one firefighter-paramedic and one firefighter-EMT, Capell said. He added that, although firefighter-paramedics are more expensive than firefighter-EMTs due to their wider range of emergency medical abilities — with a salary range of $6,724 to $8,068 per month — the fire department has “more flexibility with paramedics, since the majority of calls are medical and (the department is) required to have a minimum of four paramedics on duty at all times.”
Swinhart said the new hires will help reduce the fire department’s overtime costs and provide occasional days with three firefighters at Station 42.
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, something known as “cross-staffing,” has been a source of frustration for fire department leaders.
“Cross-staffing of Station 42 has presented one of the largest challenges since it was built in 2001,” Swinhart told Camas councilors in April 2018. “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 eliminate the cross-staffing at Station 42 and ensure a three-person engine company at all three stations, Camas would have to hire 17 to 20 full-time firefighters at a cost of $1.8 million each year — a nearly 20-percent increase in the fire department’s annual $9.5 million operating budget.
The new fire inspector hire will be funded fully by Camas, and will focus on re-inspections in that city, Capell said Tuesday.
“We have not been able to keep up on re-inspections of commercial/industrial buildings,” Capell said. “(With the new hire), our existing fire marshal and deputy fire marshal can focus on new development and existing workload. The new employee could focus on re-inspections in Camas. At times, the new hire may need to backfill existing staff due to illness or vacation.”
Camas councilors said they would revisit the issue, and possibly approve the other two firefighter hires, in mid-2019.