East County Fire & Rescue State of the District 2020: A year for the history books

Back in February 2020, we were hearing some rumblings of a disease that had started in China, was coming across Europe and had entered into the United States. We were told that it was highly contagious, but the case numbers were still low. Things changed swiftly when it appeared Seattle was one of the major places where people were being exposed.

The discomfort with this knowledge started to seep into our East County Fire & Rescue (ECFR) Commission meetings, as we discussed being safe.

Before the state mandated that our meetings should be held virtually, as board chair I suggested to the board that we needed to start meeting virtually in March. Our first virtual meeting was held and we all became floating heads, keeping our firefighters and staff as safe as possible.

Zoom became our best friend and also our nemesis; there was always something to learn about how it worked. At first, we did not have our Chief on camera. That became a priority. We also started to see into the lives of our other board members — who has a dog, who has grandchildren running into the room uninvited, who plays guitar while muted — and it made us all more human.

I will do my best to encapsulate all that has happened and hope you will keep in mind that, even without meeting in the same space, we have managed to do good work. We also have had some minor bumps we learned to navigate with the intention of always improving.

Our firefighters and staff are important to highlight. They continue to come to work each day, even with the stresses the rest of us also are experiencing. As an example, several of our full-time firefighters have a spouse who works in a hospital setting and also have children at home. The balance of school, work and staying safe are a constant challenge. I’m sure this sounds familiar.

Our firefighters respond to the worst day of a person’s life. When firefighters arrive at someone’s doorstep, they are in full personal protective equipment (PPE), which includes masks and gowns. Can you imagine how alarming that can be? What is known as the “Canary Program”, which the general public may not know about, is currently being utilized for medical calls. One firefighter goes inside, assesses the person, before others are allowed to join them. Then all put on gowns and masks.

While at the station during their shifts, the crews are always masked, and temperatures are taken every 12 hours. Duty boots are removed before entering the station.

The Clark County process has helped to prevent firefighters from getting on-the-job COVID. To date, no one has contracted COVID and missed work, but some have had to be tested when they came in contact with someone outside of work. We have Vancouver Clinic to thank for the quick turnaround testing results within 24 hours. Quarantining was always followed.

During 2020, it was as much business as usual as possible. Our board of commissioners, fire chief and administrative staff did an amazing amount of work. The result is that the ECFR District is in sound shape. With the help of our citizens, an emergency medical services (EMS) levy passed in August 2020. We are grateful to the voters of our District.

The state auditor conducted the regular audit of the District; there were no findings.

The District purchased a squad vehicle to be put into service to reduce wear on our new engine during medical calls.

The city of Washougal agreed to purchase an unused station, Station 95. The sale was recently completed, and the proceeds will be used to pay down District debt.

Trainings that had been scheduled in person were canceled. Virtual training replaced as much as possible for both the Board and staff.

The board approved a cybersecurity policy in March 2020, which proved timely given the increase in Zoom use and online technology.

Surplus vehicles were sold at auction for a higher price than expected. Dollars were earmarked for the apparatus fund, which is growing steadily for future apparatus replacement needs.

While paying for staff to cover two stations, 24 hours per day, every day, the overtime budget became strained and had to be increased twice. The District is examining staffing levels and approaches to contain costs while keeping the public served by two staffed stations.

Grants are being pursued, and one from Walmart for $1,000 was awarded to ECFR. With this grant, the District purchased an electronic suction device used to clear airways on our patients.

The extremely dry summer sparked 29 fires in the area, which were immediately extinguished. One fire on Washougal River Road was the most challenging and burned 10 acres before fire crews contained it.

Board members continued to attend other local government meetings via Zoom.

Dispatch calls for 2020 were at 1,097, the highest ever.

This list is by no means comprehensive. We invite the public to review our meeting minutes and packets on our website (ecfr.us) under the “About Us” tab at the top of the page and the “Board of Commissioner Meetings” link.

Decisions are made that continue to promote fiscal responsibility. The Board will be looking once again at future changes in revenues and expenditures as they relate to potential structural deficits. By saving now for future needs and reducing debt burdens, the District will be better able to handle future revenue limitations. Being proactive in planning has made a difference in the District’s ability to provide services without straining the budget.

The year 2020 will be one for the history books. We all experienced the stress of a global pandemic that has yet to be contained. We appreciate the efforts that our citizens have made to be as safe as possible. We hope that you can continue just a little longer as we find our way out to the other side.

Dr. Martha Martin is a fire commissioner and Board chair for East County Fire & Rescue. She has served on the Board since 2012.