Officials: Partnerships, vision key for new Camas fire chief

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

For incoming Camas Fire Chief Nick Swinhart, putting out fires his department will face in the future will require more than hoses, hydrants and adequate water pressure. It will require vision, adaptability and partnerships built on trust, government and fire officials said.

With this is mind, one of Swinhart’s first meetings this week included his Washougal counterpart, Ron Schumacher, with whom he must work closely as their two departments undergo a trial merger the next six months. The consolidation potentially could reduce a massive EMS shortfall that affects ambulance service in Camas, Washougal and nearby unincorporated areas.

Swinhart formerly served as fire chief in Watertown, S.D., before returning to his home state to take over the Camas Fire Department. He started as a firefighter in 1990 and is a licensed paramedic.

Swinhart replaced acting Camas Fire Chief Monte Brachmann on Tuesday. Camas had been without a full-time fire chief since city officials fired longtime chief Leo Leon in January.

Camas City Administrator Lloyd Halverson described Swinhart as “high energy” and a “real achiever.” Swinhart, a married father of one daughter, is an avid mountain climber who has been on expeditions to Africa, Europe, South America and Antarctica.

Swinhart must use his strengths to “build relationships of trust and mutual confidence,” Halverson said.

“A key part of his role,” Halverson said, “is to work on partnerships with EMS cooperative agencies, which would be Washougal and East County.”

Tending to those relationships is especially important right now, because the Camas EMS Fund faces a $310,000 deficit due to declining property tax revenues.

“We’re going to be exploring other methods to rein in expenditures,” Swinhart said. “I will be working closely with East County Fire and Rescue and Washougal to provide the best service while being economically responsible.”

As part of a decades-old agreement, the Camas Fire Department provides paramedic services to residents of Camas, Washougal and those living in the East County Fire and Rescue district in parts of unincorporated Clark County. Residents pay a property tax for the services.

The Washougal City Council voted last month to transfer $95,000 to the EMS Fund and pay another $55,000 annually for one firefighter/IV technician to fill one of three ambulance shifts.

Camas and Washougal’s fire departments are about to begin a six-month trial consolidation later this month. Fire department officials project the merger will save money on overtime costs and increase efficiency between the two organizations.

Swinhart said he learned valuable lessons about consolidating fire departments while serving on the Montesano City Council in Grays Harbor County. At the time, the council was attempting to merge eight departments.

“The idea was good, but we were trying to bite off too much,” he recalled.

With Swinhart aboard, Camas and Washougal’s fire department merger can officially take flight, Schumacher said.

Among the departments’ main challenges as they partner is how full-time and volunteer members will co-exist. Camas is an exclusively full-time department; Washougal is a mixed department.

“It’s going to be a challenge, but it’s one we can work through,” Schumacher said.

Swinhart started his career as a volunteer firefighter. He anticipates Washougal’s volunteers would provide much needed depth on fire and medical calls.

Schumacher anticipates the work he and Brachmann put into hashing out the partnership’s details will pay dividends. Swinhart said he has stayed in the EMS loop with local fire officials since being hired.

“It’s been a long, drawn-out process,” Schumacher said. “I don’t foresee a steep learning curve.”

Swinhart must also work with East County Fire and Rescue to forge EMS solutions.

“Certainly, he brings a little different perspective,” East County Fire and Rescue Chief Scott Koehler said of Swinhart. “Anything he can do to balance the budget and maintain as much service as possible is what the taxpayers expect.”