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Another extraordinary yearEast County Fire & Rescue’s annual ‘State of the District’

East County Fire and Rescue (ECFR) is the 60-square-mile fire district located north of the cities of Camas and Washougal. Each year since 2015, the district’s board chair has written this column as part of our outreach to our citizens. This is a recap of 2021. It is by no means comprehensive, but does give an overview of how the ECFR District is doing.

Once again, the pandemic is front and center of how fire and emergency services are operating. Much revolves around decisions to remain safe, provide the best service possible under continuous stress and the need to remain resilient. Hope comes in brief waves and then gets dashed as more variants challenge our ability to get back to “normal.”

Our ECFR staff and professionals have maintained their health by getting all of the recommended vaccinations and wearing masks on the job. More recently, the necessary mandate that personnel maintain closed office doors and restart masking at work prevented optimal communication within the building.

Changes and turnover are part of any fire district, and 2021 brought our share of both.

One major change in our administrative staff came with the retirement of Linda Durrett, our administrative specialist. Linda has been with ECFR for over 30 years, and her institutional knowledge will be missed. Her career began when we were an all-volunteer department. While she was a facilities specialist, she went on administrative leave to respond to calls as a volunteer. Many times, she was the first to arrive at a medical or fire scene. Her proficiency with apparatus was apparent on one call where, while alone in an engine, she put water on a fire from a defensive position until more help arrived.

We are grateful that Pam Jensen has stepped into Linda’s position. Her gracious serenity makes the transition much smoother for our other staff members. Our newest staff member, Debbie Macias, is our new board secretary and accounting assistant.

Another major change occurred with our longtime Commissioner Mike Berg making the decision to not run for re-election. Commissioner Berg has been with ECFR since 2009, and contributed to many positive changes that have put our district in a much better position. He served the citizens of the ECFR District well, bringing his knowledge of over 30 years serving as a firefighter with the Vancouver Fire Department. We were pleased that another citizen, Steve Hofmaster, stepped up to run for Commissioner Berg’s seat on the Board. Commissioner Hofmaster hit the ground running, attending meetings well before he was elected and working hard as he learned the ropes.

And of course, our Board and staff have been active in making sure our District is in sound financial condition.

ECFR Fire Chief Mike Carnes completed the sale of an unused fire station that was within the city limits of Washougal, selling the building to the city of Washougal. The board voted to use the funds from this sale to pay off a bond and decrease the District’s debt. We are proud that we have made the district more financially sustainable.

The District replaced the chassis of our squads while reusing the gear boxes, providing a huge savings over purchasing new vehicles entirely. Responding to medical calls using these smaller vehicles saves wear and tear on our fire engines.

The District faced challenges caused by the pandemic in getting permits and finding people for the replacement of some higher priced items. We were finally successful in the much-needed replacement of an HVAC system at Fire Station 94, located in the Mt. Norway area, and replacement of a computer server at Fire Station 91, located in the Fern Prairie area.

An important partnership with the Department of Natural Resources was developed in the summer of 2021, working together on the prevention of wildfires. We also allowed the DNR to park their fire engines at ECFR’s Fire Station 93, in the Sunnyside area, in order to be available should a wildfire erupt.

The Board considered hiring a consultant to assist with a capital facilities plan, focusing on immediate, as well as long-range, needs. Chief Carnes is researching consultants, and we hope to retain an expert in 2022, so we can ensure that we are keeping the District on firm financial and material footings over the coming years.

Public outreach was once again challenged with the Board of Commissioners continuing to meet via Zoom and the public spaces inside the fire stations closed to the public. Plans for an open house were once again postponed due to the pandemic, and the hope is that this can happen in the fall of 2022. Not having met in person as a Board for two years has started to feel “normal,” as we continue to do excellent work and enjoy glimpses into the personal lives of our commissioners, who are usually in their homes during the remote meetings.

Our firefighters noted an increase in call volume in 2021, with the final number of calls reaching 1,078. They continue working hard to keep people safe during this ongoing stressful and challenging time.

More changes are on the horizon, with a big one happening at the end of 2022, when Chief Carnes plans to retire. The Board of Commissioners will be seeking someone to replace him by December 2022.

Each member of our Board contributes to the ongoing needs of the district. Commissioners Taggart and Petty are collaborating with staff to research and apply for grant funding. Commissioner Seeds has researched and brought current information regarding the urgent need to upgrade turnouts to those without potentially carcinogenic components.

As usual, the entire Board continues to make decisions that promote fiscal responsibility and foresight, saving now for future needs and reducing debt burdens.

Members of the Board were able to attend the annual Washington Fire Commissioners Association Conference in person at the Tulalip Resort in October 2021. The resort followed all required safety measures, which made our experience more comfortable. Everyone was required to be masked, which made connecting with peers much different.

So much of what the Board and staff did in 2021, will continue into 2022 and beyond. We now are much closer to the finish line and appreciate the patience exhibited by our citizens during this challenging time. We look forward to safely seeing everyone in person, hopefully soon.

Fire Commissioner and Board Chair Martha Martin has served on the ECFR Board since 2012.