Rural fire district facing staffing, revenue woes

ECFR says it needs a levy ‘lid lift’ to help meet needs

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category icon News, Washougal

East County Fire and Rescue (ECFR) leaders say they are facing staffing shortages, an aging vehicle fleet and a “significant” revenue shortfall that could lead to lower levels of service.

ECFR board chair Joshua Seeds said it is up to ECFR voters to decide what level of service they want to see in the rural fire district, which covers fire and emergency medical service (EMS) needs in rural areas north of Camas and Washougal.

If it were up to Seeds, the district would have “enough firefighters to staff two stations every day without breaking the bank on overtime and wearing out our people in the process.”

“We also have to ensure that our vehicles and gear are up to the job, and that will require some replacements,” Seeds said.

To do that, the district will need its voters to approve a levy “lid lift,” according to Seeds.

“This is the best way to keep our citizens safe and aid them during those times they are in distress,” Seeds said. “To do that without skipping needed maintenance on apparatus and fire stations requires a ‘lid lift.’”

The ECFR district covers about 10,500 people in a 60-square-mile area north of Camas-Washougal; includes full-time, part-time and volunteer firefighters; and responds to an average of 1,100 calls a year on both sides of the Washougal River.

Recently however, unusually high levels of staff turnover have challenged the rural fire district.

In 2023, ECFR was unable to consistently fill its vacant positions and was forced to ask full-time firefighters to work significant amounts of overtime, ECFR Fire Chief Ed Hartin said.

“Part of the challenge … is there’s been a tremendous amount of hiring (for) full-time firefighters in the region on both sides of the Columbia River, and that’s creating a challenge for the smaller agencies that have a little lower pay scale than the larger agencies,” Hartin said. “We really have found that the part-time staffing model really is not viable in the long term. We’ve used it for many, many years very effectively — it was very cost-effective. But, presently, it’s proving to be very, very difficult to maintain folks in those positions.”

Firefighters who work for ECFR are earning less than the median firefighter wages at similarly sized fire districts, Seeds said.

“It would be advisable to pay our firefighters closer to the median wage to decrease turnover, reduce overtime expenses and retain experienced staff,” Seeds said. “(But) paying them closer to the median would require more money.”

ECFR consistently staffs its Fire Station 91 north of Camas, near the Grove Field airport, but regularly closes its Station 94 near the intersection of Southeast 352nd Avenue and Southeast 20th Street, northeast of Washougal, when they have staffing shortages, resulting in delayed response times.

“We want to provide equitable service throughout the district,” Hartin said, “and that’s a challenge even with two fire stations, but we’re a little better off with two than we are when we can only staff one.”

The fire district hopes to hire up to four additional full-time emergency personnel to ensure both stations are staffed full-time.

“Right now, we have some (new hires) that are currently in training, and they’ll be coming online this month, and that will give us two shifts with four full-time people and one shift with three,” Hartin said. “The fourth position on that shift is filled with part-time staff. We currently have two (part-time firefighters), and we have two vacancies, so we’re at 50 percent strength with our part-time staff.”

Hartin is also “wrestling with the challenge” of upgrading the station’s vehicles, many of which are approaching the end of their usable lives. None of the district’s water tenders, which are used to transport water to fires, and only one of the district’s three fire engines passed their annual performance reviews in 2023, and will require repair and ongoing maintenance to remain in service, according to Hartin.

“We just recently ordered a new structural fire engine, but it won’t be here for 500 days because it takes a lot of time to build them,” Hartin said. “That will help, but we still have another engine and water tender that are in need of replacement. We’re hoping that we can order those in 2025, and again, there’s that 500-day build time. When we look at our support vehicle fleet, the SUV that I drive has 113,000 miles on it, and we have a couple others — the assistant chief’s vehicle and another staff vehicle — that are kind of the same sort of vintage and mileage. We’re investing in maintaining those (vehicles) and trying to stretch those out as far as we can, but if we don’t start moving on this in the next couple of years, it’ll be a bit more of a challenge.”

The district failed to sufficiently plan for apparatus replacements in the past, according to Hartin.

“One of the first projects that I took on after I became the fire chief here was developing a long-term financial plan that looked at about 10 years (into the future) and said, ‘What does this look like?’ Part of that was identifying a capital projects replacement schedule,” Hartin said. “So we say, ‘OK, we have fire engines, they last about 20 years. We have some light apparatus, they last about 15 years. How does that work? How much money should we have put away?’ While we did have … over $1 million dollars put away into reserves, it was woefully inadequate when we looked at what we ought to have put away if we wanted to pay cash for replacement when things were due to be replaced, so we’re trying to play catch-up on that.”

At the root of these issues is the district’s financial model, which is not allowing revenues to keep up with increasing demand for services, according to Hartin.

Daily emergency services are funded by a levy capped at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value (APV). Over time, the levy rate falls as property values rise, which limits ECFR to roughly the same amount of revenue per year. The $1.50 levy that voters approved in 2019, for example, has now fallen to $1.07, Hartin said.

“And as we looked at revenue and expenses, particularly over the last couple of years with the higher inflation rate in comparison to the 1% limit on the increase in tax levy (allowed by state law), it really put us kind of behind the eight-ball,” Hartin said.

ECFR’s budget projections show that, without additional revenue, the district will have a negative cash flow in 2024.

The ECFR Board of Commissioners is considering placing a lid-lift proposition on a ballot later this year to provide adequate funding to maintain the district’s service levels.

Without passing a levy lid lift, Seeds said, the best-case scenario is that the fire district can keep operating at its current service levels through 2025, but would have to make cuts to maintain an the fund balance the district needs to fund services until ECFR receives its first property tax disbursement in April.

“Without a lid lift, we would need to start reducing expenses, such as overtime, potentially before the end of this year,” Seeds said. “This is very concerning to me. It would result in often having only one station open rather than using overtime to keep our Mount Norway station open when firefighters are out on vacation or sick leave or when we have vacancies in our ranks.”

Seeds said if voters do not approve a levy lid lift, the fire district also would likely need to defer maintenance and replacement of its equipment and apparatus and forego some facilities maintenance.

“For example, we need to replace a water tender and command vehicle soon, but would be unlikely to afford to do so without a lid lift,” Seeds said. “Since we must have reliable apparatus, this would increase maintenance expenses and risk.”

ECFR recently paid off its last remaining bond and is now debt-free for the first time since it was formed.

Seeds said fire district leaders “would like to stay debt-free while maintaining our service levels, improving staff retention, and saving money for future needs such as apparatus replacement.”

“All of (that) would require a lid lift,” he said. “Passing a lid lift would put us in good shape on staffing, equipment, and apparatus replacement into the 2030s. Without it, we will be looking at service reductions starting late this year or early next year, continued staffing challenges due to turnover, and more deferred maintenance with the risk of trouble that creates.”