Camas, Washougal fire departments merger may be extended

Camas, Washougal will talk long-term plans at Jan. 7 retreat

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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Camas and Washougal’s temporary fire department merger is expected to extend into 2012, according to city and fire officials. Where it goes from there is a little less clear.

In July, the two east Clark County departments began a six-month merger designed to streamline services and cut overtime costs. In doing so, officials hoped to dramatically reduce a $300,000 EMS budget shortfall affecting Camas, Washougal and East County Fire & Rescue.

Nearly six months later, Camas Fire Chief Nick Swinhart said he was pleased with the teamwork exhibited between the two merged departments and the cost reduction their partnership has provided. The budget shortfall is down to $120,000, he said, thanks in large part to the Washougal council’s decision to provide $150,000 from its reserves.

During the Washougal council’s Jan. 7 retreat, Camas and Washougal fire officials will make presentations illustrating how the merger has worked and where they see it going in the future.

“What we plan on doing is proposing, not only extending the merger, but taking proactive steps to make it permanent,” Swinhart said. Camas has seen $30,000 in savings associated with the temporary merger, he added.

It is possible fire officials could seek the formation of an East County Fire Authority. Such an entity would take a year or two to become a reality, Swinhart said, noting council and public votes would need to take place, and benefit fees would need to be worked out.

Camas and Washougal’s departments are taking new steps forward, Swinhart added.

For instance, a Camas captain has begun working at the Washougal fire station and vice versa. Firefighters also have the opportunity to trade shifts. In the upcoming year, they will begin choosing vacation days from one pool, a move predicted to cut down on overtime expenses.

Washougal Fire Chief Ron Schumacher declined to speak about the merger, noting his department’s plans would be illuminated during the council retreat. Mayor Sean Guard did not shed any light on the retreat, other than to say “at that point, we’ll get into where we go for the next step.”

Some skepticism

East County Fire & Rescue Chief Scott Koehler expressed skepticism about a long-term merger. East County Fire & Rescue (ECFR) provides services for about 10,000 people in the unincorporated areas of east Clark Coun

ty. The department often answers calls in Camas and Washougal and uses Camas’ EMS services.

“There have been talks about a fire authority and shared services ongoing for 10 years,” Koehler said. “It runs hot and cold, hot and cold.”

ECFR is not opposed to consolidation, as long as it makes financial sense. That is a major caveat for two reasons, Koehler explained.

First, the EMS services offered to residents of Camas, Washougal and outlying areas do not appear to be economically sustainable. Second, the difference in operating costs between the three fire entities would make it difficult for them to arrive at an equal tax rate necessary under state law to form a regional fire authority, Koehler said.

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; www.facebook.com/raylegend;www.twitter.com/col_smallcities;ray.legendre@columbian.com