Sole fire chief discussed for Camas-Washougal

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The Camas-Washougal consolidated fire department will soon take its next step — naming a sole chief — if fire officials get their wish.

The Washougal City Council discussed a plan during its workshop Monday night to make Camas Fire Chief Nick Swinhart head of the joint department. Washougal Fire Chief Ron Schumacher would switch to division chief and fire marshal for both departments, while maintaining his current salary, according to the plan.

Both city councils are expected to vote on the proposal either March 19 or April 2, officials said. Should the councils approve the proposals, the changes would go into effect by mid-April at the latest.

The leadership reorganization proposal comes less than a month after the Camas and Washougal councils voted to extend the departments’ initial six-month merger through the end of 2013. That would give a newly appointed regional fire authority committee time to evaluate the pros and cons related to the consolidation.

“What we’re trying to do basically … is take this thing out and test drive it,” Washougal Mayor Sean Guard said.

The consolidated department includes around 80 firefighters — 50 paid (40 from Camas and 10 from Washougal) and 30 volunteers from Washougal.

Having one person in charge solidifies the merger, Swinhart said. He noted Schumacher would be “my right-hand man.”

“The whole idea is to give the merger the best possible chance of succeeding,” Swinhart said. “One of the quickest ways to kill a merger is to have more than one person in charge of the effort.”

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

Plans to make the Camas fire chief head of a consolidated department started with talks between then-Camas Fire Chief Leo Leon and Schumacher. Camas officials fired Leon in January 2011. Swinhart replaced interim Fire Chief Monte Brachmann in early July, two weeks before the initial six-month merger began.

The proposal, officials said, allows both men to serve in familiar roles, Swinhart as an administrator and Schumacher as a fire marshal.

Schumacher will be in charge of fire prevention, building codes and review of construction plans, Swinhart said.

Schumacher took pride in his 3 years as fire chief, he said, but he embraced returning to his previous role of fire marshal.

“This is the direction the communities ought to go,” Schumacher said.