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Cities facing ‘critical’ fire department needs

Camas officials grapple with CWFD staffing shortages, aging fire engines, recommended station replacements

Camas city officials will soon grapple with how to fund several “critical needs” in its fire and public works departments.

Camas interim city administrator Jeff Swanson presented the staffing and facility needs to Camas City Council members last week during a council planning session on Friday, April 29.

“The ones you are hearing about today, I would classify them as pretty critical needs in terms of the degree to which we are understaffed and maintaining service levels,” Swanson told the council members Friday.

Among the city’s most pressing needs is adding 18 people to the Camas-Washougal Fire Department – three administrators, including a new fire chief, 12 firefighters to ensure the department is running three-person fire engine crews and three firefighters to help fill in the gaps caused by staff members who are out on short- and long-term disability or military leave – and replacing aging fire stations and CWFD emergency vehicles.

Swanson noted Friday that all other fire departments in the region are operating the industry standard three-person fire crews while CWFD and East County Fire and Rescue, which covers Camas-Washougal’s northern, more rural areas, are still running two-person engine crews.

“There are some issues with this dating back to 2018,” Swanson said, referring to an outcry for more CWFD staff after Washington Department of Labor and Industry investigators found the city of Camas and its fire department had violated two serious and one standard workplace safety laws when they responded to a Feb. 14 house fire in Camas’ Northwest Prune Hill neighborhood with a two-person instead of three-person fire crew.

Camas officials agreed to hire four firefighters and a fire marshal in 2019 to help the fire department reduce its overtime hours, shore up staffing shortages and begin to fix something known as “cross-staffing” — not having enough firefighters to take both an ambulance and fire engine to any one call — at Station 42 in west Camas, but Swanson said Friday that there “hasn’t been any forward-looking progress” made to run three-person fire engine crews.

To get to that point, the fire department will need to hire 12 additional firefighters, Swanson said.

“They would be phased in over time,” he added. “We don’t have the capacity even if Council said, ‘go ahead and hire them and get them on.'”

The need to fund more firefighters — and find the means to bring new firefighters on board — has been a sticking point between city officials in Camas and Washougal since 2018.

Under the 10-year agreement that merged the two fire departments in 2013, Camas agreed to be the fire department’s main funding agency and pay roughly 60 percent of the department’s costs, leaving Washougal to shoulder about 40 percent of the costs.

Officials in both cities began to question the merger in 2018, after Camas city councilors agreed to add four new firefighter positions. Though most Washougal councilors agreed the fire department was short-staffed and the positions were needed, Washougal officials said their city just could not afford to pay for 40 percent of the new hires. The issue came up again in 2020, after Camas leaders again said they were considering adding another four firefighters to the roster in the 2021-22 budget.

Washougal City Manager David Scott told the Post-Record in 2020 that Washougal city councilors “have generally acknowledged the need for enhanced staffing” at CWFD but are having trouble finding revenue to cover Washougal’s share of the new hires.

In May 2021, Camas hired consultants from Oregon-based Merina + CO to review the Camas-Washougal Fire Department partnership.

On Nov. 18, 2021, Merina consultants told city councilors from both cities the current CWFD model “isn’t workable.”

The Merina consultants’ analysis showed Washougal officials were right to worry about the fire department’s financial burden on their small city. “For Washougal, it’s pretty telling,” Merina consultant Rob Moody told city officials in November 2021. “Based on what we believe the city of Washougal could raise in property taxes given the current rates … (paying the city’s share of the CWFD partnership in 2023 through 2028) is not sustainable for the city of Washougal. In order to come up with money for contributions to Camas, (Washougal) would have to increase tax rates or come up with another source of revenue.”

The consultants also said the current CWFD partnership has no mechanisms to address future staffing, training and equipment or facility needs.

The Merina consultants have evaluated various alternatives to the fire department merger and will soon present their findings at a joint meeting of Camas and Washougal city councils.

Swanson said Friday that he believes the consultants will recommend the cities go to voters to form a regional fire authority (RFA), but cautioned that the RFA process could take a couple years and will require building community support, but that, in the meantime, the CWFD’s staffing and facility needs are still crucial to the department’s ability to respond to emergency medical calls, fires and vehicle collisions.

“We have to make forward progress on staffing, apparatus and facilities now because of the time it takes (to form a RFA),” Swanson said, adding that the staffing and facility needs being discussed at the Friday planning session were not the same as the scope of the Merina study, which analyzed CWFD’s funding mechanisms and if the current interlocal agreement was the best model for a Camas-Washougal area fire department.

“The needs (we are discussing) today are what we need to keep going,” Swanson said. “My understanding of the staffing levels, apparatus condition and facilities issues is that they (can’t) wait.”

‘We’re a little behind in replacing these two stations’

In addition to its need for more staff members to run three-person engines and help alleviate a staffing shortage that has caused mandatory overtime to kick in, meaning many CWFD firefighters are now working 60-hour weeks on a regular basis, the local fire department is also facing around $35 million worth of needed building and equipment replacements over the next few years.

In October 2021, consultants from Mackenzie, an engineering and architectural consulting firm with offices in Portland, Vancouver and Seattle, delivered a report to the Camas and Washougal city councils detailing what the joint fire department would need to invest in to meet the current and future needs of Camas-Washougal residents.

The consultants recommended:

  • Replacing the downtown Camas-based CWFD headquarters (Station 41) — which consultants warned does not currently meet the guidelines for “an essential facility” and would not withstand a major earthquake — in the next two to three years;
  • Replacing the Washougal fire station (Station 43) in the next five years; and
  • Building a third fire station in Camas within the next 10 years to meet the needs of the city’s growing population.

On Friday, Swanson and Cliff Free, CWFD’s interim fire chief, said both the downtown Camas and Washougal fire stations should be replaced in the next two to three years and that Camas will likely need a new satellite fire station to accommodate growth in the city’s North Shore area within the next five to nine years.

The Mackenzie consultants’ report also showed the fire department needs to replace four fire engines, one ladder truck, four rescue tools and two brush rigs within the next decade.

On Friday, Swanson said city officials could not afford to wait any longer to address some of the fire department’s facility and equipment needs.

“When someone tells you you need to replace a fire station in the next two to three years, they mean you need to be moving into a new station in the next two to three years,” Swanson said. “We should be well into that process now. We’re a little behind the eight ball in replacing these two stations (Station 41 in downtown Camas and Station 43 in Washougal).”

The fire department also has an urgent need to replace several of its emergency response vehicles, Swanson told city councilors on Friday.

“Four (fire engines) should be replaced immediately,” he said, adding that CWFD has one fire engine on order right now, and will need to come up with around $2.5 million to purchase another three fire engines.

Swanson and the city’s interim fire chief, Cliff Free, presented the results of a CWFD equipment study to the councilors on Friday, which showed four of the department’s five fire engines are rated “3” on a five-point reliability scale, meaning they are broken down and in the shop for repairs at least once a month.

“We’ve had some issues with reliability, and have had apparatus that won’t roll out on a call,” Swanson said.

Councilmember Tim Hein said Friday that he was “struggling to better understand the situation” and wondered if the large, expensive-to-maintain fire engines were still the best vehicles for the fire department considering the fact that around 85 percent of the calls CWFD responds to are emergency medical service (EMS) calls and not fire-related calls.

“Do we need other vehicles?” Hein asked Swanson and Free. “Are we delivering the service in the most efficient way?”

Free said local firefighters need the engines for a variety of reasons — not just to respond to a structure fire.

“We need our tools to remain with us in a ready state,” Free said, explaining that the firefighters, who are also trained as emergency medical technicians and paramedics, might respond to an EMS or vehicle collision call in a smaller vehicle, such as an ambulance, only to find out that they need equipment — “jaws of life” vehicle extrication equipment, for example — that can only be stored on the larger fire engines.

Due to the already limited staffing levels at CWFD, the fire department doesn’t have enough people to send multiple vehicles to every call. If the firefighters take a smaller vehicle to an EMS call and are then called to a fire or a situation that requires a fire engine, they would need to return to the station to swap vehicles, wasting precious response time, Free added.

“If we send our staff out in limited vehicles with limited capacity we have a limited capacity,” he said.

The engines also help CWFD crews manage traffic accident scenes by blocking incoming traffic and helping to protect firefighters as well as accident victims.

“Motorists … are going to go where they want to go and it doesn’t matter what’s in their way,” Free said. “We use the engine on Highway 14 and on rural roads to protect our working scenes. It’s big with flashing lights and sometimes it still gets run into. People will drive through our scenes. Cones? Flares? It doesn’t matter. We’ve had people drive between the gurney and an open ambulance door.”

Free said the engines, though expensive to purchase and maintain, are necessary pieces of equipment for the local fire department.

“They are giant toolboxes that carry our (EMS and fire gear) and protect our scenes, especially on roadways,” Free said.

Camas mayor: ‘The importance of this is public safety, and that is the No. 1 priority’

After hearing Swanson’s report on the local fire department’s most critical staffing, equipment and facilities needs, some Camas City Council members seemed hesitant to take immediate actions to address the fire department’s needs.

“I came here today thinking we would be talking about the priorities of Camas. As I said earlier, it’s important to look at what we can do here in Camas,” said Councilmember Leslie Lewallen. “Maybe (we need to separate) out some of these issues that involve other governmental bodies, entities, so we can say, ‘What’s just Camas?’ … With so much on our plate and so many constituents saying, ‘Please, just manage what you own,’ why are we now looking at paying for something we should not be paying for necessarily?”

Swanson said that, when it comes to the question of fire prevention and saving lives on emergency medical calls, the city doesn’t stand alone in its considerations and is, rather, closely connected to its partners in Washougal as well as in the East County Fire & Rescue Fire District and other nearby, mutual-aid fire districts.

“This particular service is one of the basic services government provides,” Swanson said. “We have this very complex arrangement with other jurisdictions, and there are a lot of consequences if we try to pull back (and say) ‘these are our jurisdictional boundaries.’ It doesn’t work that way. Assets flow across the region to wherever the need is.”

Even when Camas and Washougal had separately funded, distinct fire departments, Swanson said, Camas’ fire and EMS crews were still “being deployed into (Washougal) far more frequently than theirs were to ours.”

Councilmember Don Chaney worried that discussing the staffing and facilities needs might further exacerbate Camas’ fire partners in Washougal.

“With us having these conversations today, it’s now public, and I’m just wondering if we’re focused on how our partners will (respond) to that,” Chaney said.

Swanson said he and Free, CWFD’s interim fire chief, had met with Washougal’s city manager to let him know they planned to discuss the fire department’s most critical needs with the Camas City Council on Friday.

“(The interlocal agreement that formed the joint fire department) is good for Washougal because of the service levels they receive,” Swanson noted. “And it’s good for Camas. Without the ILA, we would be over there all the time on mutual aid calls, with no compensation to backstop that level of service.”

“The difference between (Camas’ and Washougal’s) tax bases is so vast that the ILA is not sustainable,” Swanson added. “We are going in two different directions, financially. So we need to take this service and equalize (the costs) across the service area and the population.”

Camas Mayor Steve Hogan said he considers CWFD’s staffing, equipment and facilities needs to be of utmost importance to the city of Camas and its residents.

“For me, the importance of this is public safety, and that is the No. 1 priority,” Hogan said on Friday. “I want fast response times. I want this to be a high level of service. … We’ve kicked the can down the road in spades on this. Now, we need to reevaluate how we’re going to work together and what everybody is going to support. What I think is smart is to have a regional type of entity that gives good fire-EMS service to everyone in the region. There’s a lot of dollars here, but it is what it is. We’re there, and we’re going to have to move together as a team, and the team has to be on the same page.”

Swanson agreed.

“We need to work together, because we’re better together than not,” Swanson said. “These are not going to be easy discussions or easy issues to wrap our heads around. … But we are where we are. And if we don’t make forward progress, we will see some dire issues when it comes to service.”