Fighting fire with prevention

Deputy Fire Marshal Randy Miller reflects on his 30 years of service in Camas, fight to install 'life-saving' fire sprinklers in city's new homes

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Camas-Washougal Fire Department Deputy Fire Marshal Randy Miller exposes a home sprinkler unit in the kitchen of his house in April 2016. (Contributed photo courtesy of Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)

Camas-Washougal Fire Chief Nick Swinhart recently recalled his first encounters with Deputy Fire Marshal Randy Miller. 

Miller was one of the first people Swinhart met after being named fire chief in 2011. 

“He (invited) me out to lunch and wanted to know what I knew about fire sprinklers,” Swinhart said, laughing. “Randy is passionate about this … he lives prevention.”

Miller, who just celebrated 30 years with the Camas-Washougal Fire Department, doesn’t disagree. 

As a firefighter-paramedic, Miller was able to save one person at a time. But as a deputy fire marshal focused on preventative measures like codes requiring fire sprinklers in new homes, Miller feels as if he has the chance to save “hundreds of people at a time.”

“I feel like I’m serving my community, and I take it very personally,” Miller said. 

Today, Miller is known in the national fire science community as a hero of fire prevention. 

In 2017, the American Fire Sprinkler Association’s magazine, Sprinkler Age, named Miller “Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year” and said the local deputy fire marshal was “someone who really thought outside the box and figured out creative ways to get his community protected with fire sprinklers.” 

Camas City Council members, along with Swinhart, honored Miller’s 30th work anniversary in early February and noted that Miller worked for more than a decade to bring city leaders around to the idea of requiring the installation of fire sprinklers in new homes built inside city limits. 

“For about 10 years, it was just me in the fire marshal’s office, and I was pushing sprinklers very hard,” Miller said.
Because city leaders had rejected an ordinance requiring the fire-prevention devices in new housing developments, Miller came up with ideas that would be a win-win for the city and developers — allowing developers to build more houses, have fewer fire hydrants or have narrower streets if they agreed to install fire sprinklers throughout their new development. 

The fire sprinklers made the trade-offs worth it, Miller said, because they have the ability to prevent the type of out-of-control fires that destroy homes and endanger residents and firefighters. 

“Over the years, through subtle pressure and education, (Miller) turned the naysayers around,” Swinhart said. 

Eventually, builders who were planning to construct homes in Camas got used to installing fire sprinklers. Then, in 2016, Camas City Councilman Greg Anderson told Miller he thought city leaders might be ready to support a citywide fire sprinkler ordinance. 

“He understood the value to our citizens and the protection of our firefighters,” Miller said of Anderson. “So he brought it up again, and there was a unanimous vote (in favor of requiring sprinklers in new homes) in 2016.”  

Camas became the seventh Washington city to pass such an ordinance. Two years later, Camas-Washougal Fire Marshal Ron Schumacher urged Washougal city leaders to do the same. 

“We combined forces and had lunch with speakers and realtors and the city council and mayor, and we took them through houses that had burned and those that had sprinklers,” Miller said, “and Ron was able to get them in Washougal.” 

Fire sprinklers provide “a safety level you can’t get anywhere else,” Miller said. “These are life-safety systems. Ninety percent of the time, they will control the fire.” 

Miller knows of at least four instances in Camas in which a fire sprinkler system has prevented what likely would have been major fire damage. 

“One was electrical, two were kitchen fires and one was an explosive fire,” Miller said. “Two of the fires started on the stove … One was an oil fire. The flames went up and were melting the microwave a bit, just starting to darken the cabinets when the fire sprinkler (activated).”
At 61, Miller has more than three decades in the life-saving business behind him — including five years working as a paramedic in Portland before coming to Camas in 1991 as a firefighter-paramedic and, of course, 20 years as a deputy fire marshall for the city of Camas’ fire department and the joint Camas-Washougal Fire Department. Now, he is considering his future post-retirement. 

“I have less than five years (until retiring),” Miller said. “But I still want to be an advocate for life safety.” 

A devoted member of the Grace Foursquare Church in downtown Camas and a board member of the Pathways Pregnancy Clinic in Washougal, Miller said he would like to find ways to serve the Camas community even after he hangs up his deputy fire marshal hat. 

“All of my friends that have retired have said they’re sometimes busier in retirement than when they were working, so I’m sure I’ll be the same,” Miller said. 

At a city council meeting held in early February, Miller said he enjoyed hearing that Camas’ new city administrator, Jamal Fox, credited “faith, family and friends” as his top priorities. 

“That’s been it for me,” Miller said. “I’ve had a great support system in Camas and feel very blessed to live here.”

At the city council meeting, Miller reflected on his past 30 years with the fire department. 

“Over these 30 years, I’ve transported many of your friends and loved ones to the hospital and even delivered some of this community’s beautiful babies. I’ve stood by many neighbors as tragedy has destroyed their homes. That’s not an easy thing to do, but (the risk of) this tragedy has lessened as we now have more than 3,000 fire sprinklers installed in homes.”
Miller added that he has appreciated the support of his coworkers, friends and family, including his 94-year-old mother, over the past three decades.  

“I look forward to finishing strong and thank the citizens for allowing me to serve and protect them for over 30 years,” Miller said.