Camas, Washougal extend fire merger

Partnership extended 2 years; study continues

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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Camas and Washougal’s fire officials and firefighters will continue their partnership for two more years, each city’s council unanimously voted Tuesday. Now, it is up to administrators and council members from both cities to determine whether to take it further.

Camas and Washougal’s initial temporary six-month merger was extended to run through Dec. 31, 2013. The extension will provide time for the newly formed regional fire authority committee to evaluate the pros and cons of a fire authority a taxing body that would run the departments or other, as yet undecided alternatives.

Camas and Washougal started a temporary fire merger in mid-July as a way to combat EMS shortfalls caused by declining property tax revenues. Officials from both departments have praised the consolidation’s results decreased overtime costs, increased staffing in both departments and improved emergency response times.

Camas has saved $30,000 since the merger, Fire Chief Nick Swinhart said. Washougal has saved $13,000 during the same period, Fire Chief Ron Schumacher said.

The fire chiefs and city administrators are tentatively scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss the consolidated department’s organizational chart, Schumacher said. Changes would likely happen over the next few months, Swinhart said. No other immediate changes, with respect to the merger, are on the horizon, Swinhart added.

A regional fire authority could provide an economically sound way to provide residents fire and emergency medical services, Camas and Washougal officials said, stressing the word could.

“The challenges are can we make (these services) better for the region without diminishing our level of service for individual communities,” Camas Councilman Don Chaney said.

Each city council selected three members to the regional fire authority committee Tuesday. Such an exploratory committee is required by state law before a regional fire authority can be formed.

The two cities’ mayors, city administrators and fire chiefs, plus representatives from the International Association of Fire Fighters No. 2444, will also be involved in the committee’s discussions. Subcommittees will be chosen at a later date.

Nothing has been decided at this point, Washougal Councilman Dave Shoemaker stressed.

“We’re looking for options,” said Shoemaker, who is joined by his fellow council members Connie Jo Freeman and Jon Russell on the committee. Chaney, Greg Anderson and Linda Dietzman are Camas’ council representatives on the regional fire authority committee.

Officials with East County Fire and Rescue, which represents around 10,000 people living in unincorporated areas of east county, will “observe” the committee’s meetings, Fire Chief Scott Koehler said.

“The fire authority offers us and our taxpayers no financial advantage,” Koehler said, noting his department is economically sound without joining with Camas and Washougal.

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