Camas, Washougal begin trial fire service merger

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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On Wednesday, Camas and Washougal firefighters and medics performed their duties the same way they have for decades. Yet, unbeknownst to most observers, a small piece of history was being made.

Camas and Washougal’s fire departments began their six-month trial consolidation Wednesday. As part of the merger, fire officials from both departments held a joint meeting and firefighters and medics from each department rode with their counterparts on emergency calls.

“We’re building a new team,” Camas Fire Chief Nick Swinhart said. “We’re going to be a family now. We’re going to work between departments.”

Fire officials expect the temporary merger will lead to quicker response times and lower costs, particularly overtime expenses. The results of the six-month trial will likely decide whether Camas and Washougal make the merger permanent in 2012.

“If it works like we theorize it will, it will represent a way to keep services solvent for the future and be able to provide the same services residents expect,” said Swinhart, who replaced acting fire chief Monte Brachmann last week.

Some things will remain the same during the six-month trial merger.

The firefighters’ paychecks will still be signed by the city that employs them. Their uniforms will bear their city’s patch.

“It’s kind of exciting,” Washougal Fire Chief Ron Schumacher said, in reference to the temporary merger. “We had a lot of bodies in our station we’ve never had before.”

Residents of both east county cities will see more of neighboring units than they have in the past, Schumacher predicted. For instance, Washougal fire engines that are closer to Camas fires than Camas engines would respond first, and vice versa.

The trial merger will also result in more available firefighters, Schumacher said.

On a typical night, Washougal would have three paid firefighters and an occasional volunteer assigned to Station 171 near the city’s downtown. Now, Washougal will often have six firefighters staying overnight at the station, Schumacher said.