More firefighters needed? Camas renews debate

Washougal says it still cannot afford new fire department hires, asks for extension

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A fire engine sits outside Station 41 in downtown Camas in October 2020. City of Camas leaders are discussing adding four new firefighter positions to the city's 2021-22 budget to help shore up staffing shortages and eliminate cross-staffing issues at Station 42 in west Camas. (Photos by Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

A debate is brewing for the second time in as many years over increasing staffing levels at the Camas-Washougal Fire Department and determining who will pay for what — and how.

At the heart of the issue is a recent master plan drafted by independent consultants from Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI), which called staffing levels at CWFD “excessively lean,” highlighted the fact that the fire department’s average response time is more than double the industry standard, and said the department was “challenged to meet the changing needs of the community in some aspects.”

Camas officials agreed to hire four firefighters and a fire marshal in 2019 to help the fire department reduce its overtime hours, shore up staffing shortages and begin to fix something known as “cross-staffing” — not having enough firefighters to take both an ambulance and fire engine to any one call — at Station 42 in west Camas.

This week, the Camas council members also discussed budgeting for an additional four firefighters in the 2021-22 budget and mulled over four funding options for the staffing additions, including dedicating the city’s 1-percent property tax limit proceeds to the CWFD positions; joining other Clark County cities that have implemented utility taxes to help pay for local services such as fire and police departments; pledging the Ground Emergency Medical Transportation (GEMT) funds, provided by the state to supplement publicly owned or operated GEMT providers to recoup costs not paid by Medicaid, to cover the four new firefighter positions; and using the fire department’s fund balance.

CWFD Fire Chief Nick Swinhart said Monday he estimates the first-year cost of hiring four new full-time firefighters would be about $500,000, with annual costs falling between $450,000 and $480,000.

The new hires would help alleviate the cross-staffing issue at Station 42, reduce the need for Vancouver Fire to respond to calls in west Camas and increase the local fire department’s response time to fire calls and medical emergencies in a rapidly growing part of the city.

Cliff Free, the division chief of emergency medical services at CWFD, told city officials Monday that cross-staffing at the west Camas station has resulted in tough choices for the firefighters, who also are trained in emergency medical response.

“Grass Valley is staffed with two people. For the entirety of Ward 3 and half of Ward 2, there are only two people (to respond to emergency calls),” Free said.

If firefighters take a fire engine to a call, they have no capacity to transport patients to the hospital, Free said. But, if they take the ambulance and only have two people at the scene, they may have problems extricating incapacitated patients from two-story homes. Currently, Vancouver Fire responds to high-priority calls in Station 42’s coverage area and firefighters from Camas’ Station 41 respond to low-priority calls, but both must travel additional miles and add to the total response time. Adding four additional firefighters would eliminate the cross-staffing issues and allow Station 42 firefighters to reduce the amount of time it takes to help people suffering a medical emergency or those involved in traffic accidents get to the hospital.

“Without cross-staffing, the response time would be better,” Free said.

The new hires also would make it easier for Station 42 firefighters to respond to consecutive calls.

“On the second calls, our response time is very low,” Free said. “When we’re on a call, it leaves a huge vacuum with no response capacity at all … (There are) times when we don’t even have a resource for all of west Camas (because the two Station 42 firefighters are already on a call).”

Free added that the need for emergency responders is increasing in west Camas.

“The call volume at Station 42 is up 10 percent from last year (and) the number of multiple calls happening simultaneously is up,” Free said, noting that the area covered by Station 42 has seen more than 1,000 new permits for single-family homes in just two years and includes three public schools as well as the Green Mountain development, which is slated to eventually have 2,000 single-family residences. “The west side of Camas is growing rapidly.”

Councilwoman Ellen Burton, the newest official on the CWFD’s joint policy advisory committee (JPAC), said she feels the two cities “have been looking for a perfect solution (to the fire department’s staffing shortages) for a number of years and, at this point, need to take a ‘good enough’ position.”

Camas Councilman Greg Anderson agreed the city should look into hiring the four additional firefighters, but said he would want to take the utility tax funding option “off the table” due to “public concerns … and its regressive nature.”

Anderson also suggested the city consider hiring two firefighters in 2021 and two more in 2022.

“Good enough may not be where we want to end up, but it is certainly better than where we were yesterday,” Anderson said.

The council’s newest member, Shannon Roberts, said she was “not for any kind of tax.”

“I don’t want to raise property taxes or utility taxes,” Roberts said. “It’s not the time for that.”

In the end, the council instructed city staff to return with an option for adding two firefighters in 2021 and another two in 2022, with all funding options on the table except for the utility tax.

The council will discuss the issue again at its Nov. 16 workshop and hold a public hearing on the budget in early December.

Washougal says it cannot afford new firefighters

Although Camas officials agreed with fire department leaders and firefighter union representatives in 2018 that the CWFD was in need of a staffing increase, Washougal city leaders have not been as quick to buy into the need for additional firefighters and have repeatedly said they do not have enough revenue to fund their 40-percent share for the new fire department hires.

In 2019, the city of Washougal said it would only be able to pay its share for two of the five new CWFD positions, and asked Camas to agree to a one-year amendment of the interlocal agreement stating Washougal would not be responsible for paying 40 percent of the other three positions.

That amendment was set to expire at the end of this year, but Washougal leaders this week asked Camas officials to issue a one-year extension.

Camas Councilman Steve Hogan said he was bothered by the fact that the two cities did not seem to “be on the same page” when it came to the fire department’s need for additional firefighters.

“This has not been a smooth road to go down the past few years,” Hogan said Monday. “I think it’s going to get worse unless we do something.”

Hogan noted that the ESCI report showed that a high percentage of CWFD’s emergency medical calls come from the Washougal side of the department’s coverage area.

“I have not liked the way this has worked for us over the last few years,” Hogan said. “As we struggle to get staffing at Station 42 (in Camas), we find ourselves pulled with a lot of work in Washougal. I don’t appreciate that they (Washougal) don’t seem to be on the same page as us in terms of these added people.”

Hogan said he would not agree to the one-year extension unless the two cities could rework their entire fire department agreement.

“At this point, I’m planning to not vote yes unless we terminate the agreement and figure out how this thing’s going to work down the road,” Hogan said.

Washougal City Manager David Scott jumped onto the virtual Camas City Council Zoom meeting Monday evening and said Washougal City Council members were committed to making the CWFD partnership work, but “have not identified a way to pay for (the new firefighters).”

“We already have a utility tax and we don’t have as many (revenue) tools as you,” Scott told the Camas city councilors, Camas Mayor Barry McDonnell and Camas City Administrator Jamal Fox on Monday. “So we will have to go to our voters for any program enhancement.”

Washougal councilors had hoped to wait until next year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, before they approached voters for money to help fund the new firefighter positions, Scott said.

“If Camas does decide to move forward (with the additional four firefighters), we don’t want to get in the way of that,” Scott said.

Fox said there are plans “already in the works” for city leaders from Camas and Washougal to sit down and discuss the joint fire department agreement and “all the other facets of the relationship.”

Noting that the interlocal agreement would need to be reworked to avoid similar situations in the future, the Camas councilors unanimously passed Washougal’s request for a one-year extension allowing that city to forego paying its 40-percent share for the new fire marshal and two of the firefighters hired in 2019 until the end of 2021.