Camas-Washougal firefighters ‘at a breaking point’

Fire chief tells Camas City Council mandatory overtime is taking a toll on frontline firefighters; city officials OK pay raises, new 3-year contract with firefighters union

Camas-Washougal firefighters are “at a breaking point” due to mandatory overtime caused by staffing shortages, and there are no immediate solutions, Camas-Washougal Fire Chief Nick Swinhart told Camas City Council members this week.

“We are so appreciative of our staff working this mandatory overtime and changing family plans and really pulling out all the stops to keep it going, but they’re at a breaking point,” Swinhart told city councilors during their workshop on Monday, Nov. 15. “All of the options available are long-term. There are no immediate fixes.”

The department faces a perfect storm of staffing challenges due to a combination of firefighters out on medical, family and military leave; firefighters who have quit the Camas-Washougal Fire Department to take positions at other — often higher-paying — fire departments; new firefighter recruits at the fire academy who won’t be able to fully take over until next summer; and a changing employee culture that values family and free time over the higher pay associated with overtime hours.

“Out of 52 line personnel, we have 20 percent out on leave,” Swinhart said.

To cover for those employees, CWFD needs firefighters willing to work overtime.

When the chief worked as a frontline firefighter, many of his peers looked for voluntary overtime opportunities, Swinhart said.

“Now, personnel like to prioritize their family time and time off,” he added, “so they’re declining to come in on optional overtime.”

When there are too few firefighters to staff a station and no employees willing to take on the voluntary overtime hours, firefighters must work mandatory overtime.

While local firefighters have been asked to work overtime in the past, Swinhart said the current mandatory overtime situation, which has caused the department to overspend its overtime budget by close to $100,000 this year, is unprecedented. Now, firefighters who come in to work their regular shifts are constantly worried they’ll be placed on mandatory overtime and have to arrange for childcare or cancel plans they had for their days off.

Camas-Washougal firefighters, who face working up to 60 consecutive hours of overtime before getting a 12-hour break, are overworked, and the mandatory overtime is beginning to take a toll on their health, Swinhart said.

“We’ve had three who have suffered serious cardiac events while on duty,” the fire chief told city councilmembers Monday. That includes one firefighter who suffered a heart attack in early November after working nearly 300 hours of overtime. Post-traumatic stress disorder claims also are on the rise among local firefighters, Swinhart said.

“If somebody calls in sick and we’re at minimum (staffing levels), we either hire on overtime to fill that spot or close a fire station down,” Swinhart said. “Those are the two options I have to consider as a fire chief.”

CWFD has had a few short-term closures, the fire chief added, including a medical unit that had to close for a few hours recently due to a lack of staff.

“These aren’t super-long periods of time — a couple of hours here and there,” Swinhart said, “but I worry it could get worse. If we lose any more people — more than one or two — before someone else comes back, we could shut down a fire station … until we get someone in and trained, which could take up to a year.”

Swinhart and other CWFD leaders do not know when many of the firefighters who are out on medical or short-term leave will return. Of the 10 fire department employees — eight firefighters, one battalion chief and one captain — who are currently on leave, only three have tentative or firm return dates, including two firefighters on military leave who are expected to return in early 2022, and a firefighter with a tentative return date of Dec. 15. One of the firefighters who is currently on long-term leave is unlikely to return in 2022 and a battalion chief on medical leave through March 2022 could opt to retire instead of return to the department, Swinhart noted on Monday.

The fire department has six firefighter recruits undergoing training at the state fire academy, but those firefighters will need to continue their training once they’ve graduated and will not be ready “to make an impact” on the staffing situation until at least June 2022, Swinhart said.

Fire department leaders also are prepping for upcoming vacancies, including a few retirements set to occur in 2022.

“We’re looking at a minimum of five vacancies for the spring academy,” Swinhart said. “And it could be more than that.”

Asked by city council members if other fire departments in the region are experiencing similar staffing issues, Swinhart said he doesn’t know of any that are in the same situation as the CWFD.

“Portland-Vancouver (fire departments) have much larger staffing bases, so they can absorb these vacancies, but (in Camas-Washougal) even eight to 10 people (on leave) can have a tremendous impact,” Swinhart said, again noting that the current mandatory overtime situation is something he has never experienced in his 32-year career as a firefighting professional.

Council OKs raises for firefighters to help retain staff

Adding to the fire department’s staffing woes is the fact that Camas-Washougal firefighters have been working for nearly a year without a labor contract in place, while the local International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) union bargained with the city for pay increases to help retain firefighters.

IAFF members ratified a new contract that will give Camas-Washougal firefighters a nearly 20-percent pay bump over the next three years in late October, but Camas City Council members voted 4-2 on Nov. 1, to postpone consideration of the three-year contract until councilmembers could review the wage adjustments, which will likely cost the city between $1.2 million and $1.6 million over the next three years.

Jeff Swanson, the city’s interim city administrator, told city officials on Nov. 1, the new contract was designed to bring wages more in line with other fire departments in the region and to help avoid the costs of training a firefighter, only to have that employee leave for a higher-paying job.

“It costs about $150,000 to fill a position in fire or (emergency medical services) with recruitment, training and the probationary time before they’re fully fledged to go off and work on their own,” Swanson explained.

Swanson said the city has had a hard time attracting and retaining employees at the fire department because of its lower-than-average pay scales for firefighters, firefighter-paramedics and other personnel.

“We’ve become a training organization for other agencies and spare them the substantial investment required to be in this business,” Swanson said. “We subsidize other cities and fire departments’ costs by not retaining our talent.”

Swanson also pointed out that the costs of not retaining firefighters go far beyond dollars.

“The (consequences) can be counted in the minutes it takes to respond to someone who’s not breathing, relying on a layperson to perform CPR — excruciating, rigorous, physical labor most laypeople can’t sustain too long,” Swanson said. “We’re having some unprecedented things in the labor market … (that) make it difficult for us to attract talent and be competitive to provide essential services.”

He added that the numbers connected to firefighter wages in the region are “an objective reality of market forces.”

“We don’t have to like it. The numbers are dispassionate. They just are what they are,” Swanson said. “We’re facing the reality that the only thing we can really do is adapt and respond.”

City council members had varied responses to Swanson’s presentation of the new, three-year firefighter contract on Nov. 1.

Councilmember Don Chaney said Nov. 1, he wanted to give the Council and the public more time to digest the numbers presented in the bargaining agreement before taking a vote.

“This is the first time the public has been aware of the terms of this contract,” Chaney said on Nov. 1, adding that he had just seen data earlier that day showing the contract could cost the city an additional $1.2 million and $1.6 million over the next three years.

“I got (the data) this afternoon. I’m not sure the full council has received this information yet,” Chaney said on Nov. 1, before proposing the city council postpone its decision on the bargaining agreement for an additional two weeks.

Councilmembers Melissa Smith and Shannon Roberts agreed with Chaney.

“For such a big price tag, I do have concerns,” Smith said on Nov. 1. “We’re still in the pandemic, and that’s just a big ask … it just gives me too much heartburn right now.”

Councilmembers Greg Anderson and Bonnie Carter disagreed with postponing the council’s decision.

“A lot of this information has been available to us for several weeks,” Anderson said, adding that he worried postponing the decision might give Camas-Washougal firefighters who are on the fence about staying with the organization two more weeks to decide to move to another fire department.

“Two weeks may make a difference if they’re considering leaving,” Anderson said. “Certainty matters in employment.”

Roberts said she didn’t think waiting until the Council’s Nov. 15 meeting to decide on the firefighters’ new contract would make much of a difference.

“There are still many citizens out there that don’t have jobs,” Roberts said on Nov. 1. “Let’s look at this from those citizens’ standpoint, not the standpoint of somebody who already has a job and may not get a 20-percent raise.”

In the end, the city councilors voted 4-2 to postpone the decision for two weeks, with Councilmembers Anderson and Carter voting against postponing.

Camas resident and fire professional Zach Goodman spoke during the Council’s Nov. 1 meeting and said he was disappointed by the Council’s decision.

“(Firefighters) have been operating without a contract for a year,” Goodman said. “I feel that you are, with this motion to delay consideration of passing (the new contract) undermining progress on both sides.”

On Nov. 15, the council had no discussion on the issue before voting 5-1 in favor of approving the three-year contract with IAFF. Councilwoman Shannon Roberts voted against the contract approval.

The new contract will be retroactive to the start of 2021 and includes a 10-percent wage increase over three years, as well as annual cost-of-living adjustments. The new contract has a six-tier salary scale for firefighters, firefighter-paramedics, deputy fire marshals, fire captains, fired captain-paramedics and battalion chiefs. The contract will give firefighters a salary range of $6,660 to $7,991 per month in 2021. Firefighter-paramedics will earn between $7,326 and $8,790 per month in 2021 under the new contract. The contract includes a 2-percent cost-of-living increase in 2021, 4.5-percent cost-of-living increase in 2022 and a 4-percent wage adjustment in 2021 and 3-percent wage adjustment in 2022 for all CWFD employees represented by IAFF.

To read the terms of the new IAFF contract with the city of Camas, visit bit.ly/321VIlj.