Rural fire district to use smaller, more maneuverable squad vehicles for majority of calls

East County Fire and Rescue chief says vehicles are better than large engines for navigating rural roads north of Camas, Washougal; firefighter union president worries switch will leave first responders without all the tools they need

East County Fire and Rescue's new squad vehicle, parked outside ECFR Fire Station 91 in Fern Prairie, north of Camas, on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021, has enough room to carry four firefighters and equipment to fight brush fires and treat emergency medical calls.

East County Fire and Rescue's new squad vehicle, parked outside ECFR Fire Station 91, near Camas on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021, has enough room to carry four firefighters and equipment to fight brush fires and treat emergency medical calls. (Contributed photo courtesy of East County Fire and Rescue)

The image of firefighters racing to a call in a big, red fire engine, lights blazing, is an image ingrained in the public’s psyche, but some fire districts — especially those in rural districts populated with steep, narrow roads — are deciding to leave the classic fire engine at the station on routine medical calls and, instead, opt to take smaller, more maneuverable vehicles.

The East County Fire and Rescue district, which serves rural areas north of Camas and Washougal, is no exception.

The fire district unveiled its new squad vehicle, a Ford F-550 with 4-x-4 capabilities, seating for four firefighters and equipment for medical and brush fire calls, at the beginning of 2021.

“We used to respond in an engine on most of our calls,” explained ECFR Fire Chief Mike Carnes. “Now we have changed from an engine to a squad.”

The smaller vehicle will make it easier for crews to respond to rural medical calls and should save taxpayers money, Carnes said.

Not only are the smaller squad vehicles much less expensive to replace than a fire engine — $60,000 for a new squad vehicle versus $500,000 to $600,000 for a new engine — but the smaller vehicles will help avoid wear-and-tear on the district’s engines and save on fuel costs, Carnes said.

“We’re a rural fire district and 80 percent of our calls are medical and don’t really require an engine response,” he added.

The district will still use fire engines to respond to structure fires and on all motor vehicle accidents.

“The engine has more tools, like the ‘jaws of life’ that we might need in a (motor vehicle accident),” Carnes explained.

Years ago, when ECFR was a mostly volunteer fire district, it was easier to take smaller squad vehicles to calls. But as the district grew, becoming a “combined district” with paid firefighters and volunteers, Carnes said ECFR started to respond to most calls in a fire engine to accommodate more than the two firefighters that fit into the district’s old squad vehicles.

“We never wanted to leave the volunteers at home, so we started running the fire engine so all the guys could go,” Carnes said.

When voters approved a levy “lid lift” in August 2019, the district decided to use some of the $600,000 to replace the 15-year-old squad vehicles and replace them with two crew cabs able to fit four firefighters.

Buying a new squad vehicle would normally cost about $90,000, but the fire district was able to reduce that cost to about $60,000 per vehicle because it opted to reuse the tool cabinets, water tanks and water pumps from the old squad vehicles.

“We’ve only purchased one, but we have money set aside to purchase (another),” Carnes said. “We wanted to run one to make sure we’re happy with the chassis.”

Not everyone was pleased by the district’s decision to switch over from fire engines to squad vehicles for most of the district’s calls.

In November 2020, Kevin Bergstrom, president of the East Clark Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 2444, the union that represents firefighters in the ECFR district as well as the Camas-Washougal Fire Department, publicly criticized the ECFR Board of Commissioners’ decision and said the squad vehicles “cannot meet the needs of the community.”

“The district is moving to a ‘squad’ response that leaves the fire engine at the station with no one to respond to a fire call,” Bergstrom wrote in a press release issued in early November. “This type of response is not ‘best practices’ in the fire services and handcuffs the firefighters so that they cannot help when you need them in the case of a fire response.”

Carnes said he realizes that many firefighters feel like the fire engine is their main toolbox because it contains all of the equipment they would need for every type of call.

“Naturally, they want to grab (the fire engine) because they know they have everything they could possibly want or need,” Carnes said. “So they have a little bit of tension (switching to the squad vehicles).”

“But we’re a rural district, which is quite a bit different than a city fire department,” Carnes added, saying the fire engines have a tough time making it up the rural, often gravel, roads that populate the ECFR district. “We should really be running the engine on these rural roads when there’s no fire.”

Bergstrom said he wishes the ECFR Board of Commissioners had reached out to its firefighters to hear what they think about taking the squad vehicles instead of the better-equipped engines on medical calls.

If the board had talked to firefighters, Bergstrom said, they likely would have heard from veteran first responders who “could have pointed out some of the pitfalls” that may come from switching from an engine to a squad vehicle for medical calls.

“There are a number of tools these (smaller squad vehicles) don’t carry and can’t carry,” Bergstrom said, noting that firefighters in the smaller vehicles would not have access to ladders, ropes for rescues, extrication tools, or equipment for rescuing downed firefighters or attacking structure fires.

“So it really is handcuffing them,” Bergstrom said.

Carnes said he realizes the switch to the smaller vehicles is “kind of a hard pill for (some firefighters) to swallow” but said he thinks about half his crew understands the district’s need to utilize the squad vehicles on medical and brush fire calls.

Other districts in Clark County have made the switch to using squad vehicles for non-fire, non-motor vehicle accident calls, Carnes added.

Firefighters in La Center started testing their squad vehicles in 2015; Fire District 3 in Battle Ground uses squads; and the city of Vancouver uses a smaller, utility vehicle for medical calls during high-call volume times.

An article titled, “More departments choose smaller fire apparatus to handle typical runs,” published in the Dec. 20, 2017 issue of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment magazine recognizes that the smaller squad vehicles can help firefighters in rural areas respond faster and save on fuel and engine maintenance costs without compromising fire district residents’ safety.

Bergstrom said the ECFR district is more remote than many other fire districts, and relies heavily on mutual aid agreements with CWFD and the Vancouver Fire Department. If ECFR firefighters are on a medical call and find themselves called to a structure fire or motor vehicle accident, they could lose valuable time going back to the station to switch over to the fire engine, Bergstrom said.

“Then, that burden (of responding) would lie on the next agency, on Camas or Vancouver,” Bergstrom noted. “East County is on an island to some degree … and they can’t just hope that another jurisdiction can come.”

With a large, rural area to cover and only two stations to draw from — stations separated by a river — ECFR already has issues with fast response times, Bergstrom said. He fears the move to taking the smaller squad vehicles will “limit them even further.”

Carnes said he understands the union’s concerns about not being able to grab the fire engine if the firefighters are out in the squad vehicle on a medical call, but said that scenario is exceedingly rare — and also covered by the district’s mutual aid agreements with nearby fire departments.

Carnes said ECFR administrators researched the district’s calls between 2015 and 2020 and did not find one instance of a structure fire call that came in while firefighters were occupied on a medical call.

If that situation were to occur, he added, the ECFR crew would have to finish their medical call before responding to the structure fire and would not only have personal protective gear like air packs and some firefighting equipment on the squad vehicle, but would have other fire departments responding with four engines to the structure fire call.

The district’s call volume has increased over the past year, going from 936 calls in 2019 to 1,097 calls in 2020, but the vast majority of those calls — roughly 80 percent — were for medical calls, not for structure fires, Carnes added.

“We just don’t get many fire calls,” he said. “And actual structure fires aren’t even 20 percent of our calls.”

The ECFR fire district has already started using the new squad vehicle to respond to most calls from Station 91 in Fern Prairie, and will soon run a second squad vehicle from Station 94, in Mt. Norway, north of Washougal.

“We’ll order the second one fairly soon. We just wanted to get 30 to 60 days of experience with the one that we have now to make sure there isn’t anything we want to change on the second squad, but we’ve already budgeted for the second one.”

Bergstrom said he understands why the fire district needs the new squad vehicles, which are useful in a brush fire or wildland fire situation, but added that he disagrees with using the vehicles on medical calls.

He added that he still hopes ECFR commissioners will have a dialogue with firefighters about this change in operations.

“Firefighters in East County are very open to collaboration,” Bergstrom said. “If the commissioners want to have a discussion and open dialogue, we would welcome that. Some of these ideas get made without consultation, but one would hope that they would consult with people who do the job day in and day out.”