During pre-COVID-19 times, the East County Fire & Rescue board of commissioners’ special meeting to discuss staffing issues would likely have been standing-room only. Instead, when callers joined the virtual board meeting on Monday, Nov. 9, a voice simply announced: “There are more than 20 participants in the meeting.”
Most were there for just one reason: to urge the commissioners to approve a request for staffing funds that would avoid the “browning out,” or temporarily closing, ECFR’s two main fire stations — Station 91 north of Camas near the Grove Field airport and Station 94 north of Washougal in the Mount Norway area.
“The reason we’re here is that we’re looking to make a decision to keep both stations open 24/7,” exECFR Fire Chief Mike Carnes told the board of commissioners and community members on Monday.
A series of unexpected staffing challenges — including an off-duty fire captain injured in mid-October while helping at the scene of a traffic accident — led to an uptick in the district’s overtime staffing costs.
“We’ve been very, very fortunate that we haven’t had many injuries or big illnesses,” Carnes told the Post-Record last week. “But we ran into some staffing issues this year … we had a couple firefighters who resigned to take other jobs. We had a firefighter get injured. And a couple out on paternity leave.”
The staffing troubles led to an unexpected number of open shifts and the possibility of browning out the district’s two main stations, instead staffing only Station 93, which is located in the middle of the fire district.
The district has had to “brownout” stations in the past due to budget shortfalls. In 2019, after voters rejected the district’s five-year “levy lid lift” ballot measure, ECFR had 70 brownout days.
In August 2019, the district returned to voters with another levy lid lift proposition. This one, set at 34 cents per $1,000 assessed property value, was for a much shorter timeframe and the commissioners said they would use the money for a variety of needs, including the prevention of browning out the district’s two main fire stations, maintaining adequate reserve funds to help replace aging equipment and buying self-contained breathing apparatus for firefighters.
Carnes said the recent staffing issues have put a dent in the district’s plans.
“It was unexpected and kind of a shock and we’re trying to get our minds around it,” Carnes said of the staffing shortages and need for more overtime pay to keep the two main stations fully staffed all hours of the day. “I want to staff the stations, but we have to live within our means.”
On October 20, Carnes went to the board with a request for an additional $60,000 to cover the district’s unexpected overtime costs through the end of the year and avoid browning out stations an estimated 34 times.
That request failed by a 3-2 vote, with commissioners saying they wanted more time to consider the staffing issues.
Local firefighters push back
On Monday, Nov. 9, Carnes again approached the board with a request to use $50,000 of the more than $600,000 collected by the levy lid lift to pay the unexpected overtime costs and avoid browning out stations this year.
Several people listening to the meeting urged the commissioners to approve the request.
“Browning out is a bad policy, especially when voters were told things were going to be staffed and taken care of,” said Zach Goodman, a Camas resident and Portland firefighter. Goodman said he did not think saving the money for the district’s reserves to help fund future equipment and apparatus replacements — as some commissioners had discussed in October and again this week — was worth the public safety risk and possibility of longer response times that came with having to brownout stations.
“I have an issue with knowing I might have a longer response time because you guys are trying to save some money,” Goodman said.
Kevin Bergstrom, a Camas-Washougal firefighter and president of the union that represents Camas-Washougal and ECFR firefighters, agreed.
In a letter sent Nov. 5 to members of the media and ECPFF union members, Bergstrom urged people to contact the ECFR commissioners and “tell them to simply provide the service you voted for and (to) not ‘brownout’ fire stations …”
On Monday, Bergstrom added that he believed the district had made it very clear to voters that, if they approved the levy lid lift in August 2019, the district would avoid browning out stations and use the money to keep firefighters at its two main stations 24/7.
“(You didn’t) say, ‘We’ll do this until we want to save some money,'” Bergstrom said.
Larry Larimer, a retired Camas-Washougal Fire Department battalion chief, also spoke during the Nov. 9 meeting.
“Browning out stations creates a hole. (CWFD) has to respond and that affects us,” Larimer said. “I urge you to maintain staffing at this point in time.”
Carnes explained that not all of the money collected by the levy lid lift was meant to cover staffing costs.
“It’s important to realize there were more things we were trying to accomplish,” Carnes said. “In our strategic planning, we’ve talked about our need to purchase some big ticket items.”
The lid lift increased the fire district’s revenue by about $674,000, and $268,000 of that went straight into the operating budget to shore up revenue shortages. The district earmarked about $400,000 for its reserves, Carnes said, so it might be able to pay for projected needs — including a new fire engine, self-contained breathing apparatus, new squad vehicles and extrication tools — without having to borrow the money.
“I do feel strongly that we represented to voters that we would do everything we can to avoid brownouts,” Commissioner Josh Seeds said Monday. “We need to be very cautious about overextending ourselves financially. We don’t have a lot in reserves.”
Seeds said he did not want to see the district “spend willy nilly” just because they suddenly had a “bit extra” in reserves.
“On the other hand, keeping station staff isn’t spending willy nilly,” Seeds said. “I understand why our overtime costs shot up.”
Commissioner Taggert said felt the board was not ready to approve the overtime increase in October, but was “now in a better place to make some decisions.”
In the end, the board voted unanimously to approve the additional overtime funds.
Commission Chair Martha Martin said the board would need to take a deeper dive into the fire district’s staffing shortages and overtime costs in 2021.
“We want to make sure that we, as a board, are addressing the overtime issue and looking at this in the future — at how will this affect the budget,” Martin said. “I think in our workshops in 2021, we really need to sit down and plan as best as we can to see what we can do moving forward with the best data and best planning we can get.”