Camas, Washougal finalize fire merger

Both city councils OK 10-year contract following trial run

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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A temporary courtship between the Washougal and Camas fire departments has resulted in a long-term marriage.

The Camas City Council on Monday voted to approve a 10-year contract, the final step in partnering on fire and EMS services in the neighboring cities. The Washougal City Council voted to approve the contract at its Dec. 9 meeting.

Long in the works, the contract will integrate staff and equipment between the departments starting in 2014. The two cities have been operating with a joint fire department since July 2011. That merged department has had one fire chief since February 2012.

Fire officials say the long-term consolidation of the departments will result in cost savings and improved medical response times.

The existing short-term merger, acting as a trial run for a long-term contract, appears to show there's some truth to those claims.

So far in 2013, under the temporary merger, Washougal's overtime expenditures are down by roughly $60,000, or around 50 percent. Overtime savings in Camas, at least for EMS services, will be close to that officials say. The figures could change by the end of the year.

Staffing at Washougal's fire station has doubled, going from two firefighters to four, helped along by the addition of a permanent paramedic transport unit.

Officials have called the scope and cost savings of the merger significant.

"We believe the merger has definitely contributed to these changes and the lowering of expenditures," said Nick Swinhart, fire chief for the Camas-Washougal Fire Department.

An ad hoc committee of council members from both cities recommended the consolidation after a year of discussion. The committee originally contemplated creating a regional fire authority, which would be considered a "special purpose district" and require voter approval to create. In the end, that arrangement was considered less cost effective than a contract.

Escape clauses

Financial terms for the contract call for Camas to allocate 63 percent of the costs and Washougal the remaining 37 percent. Camas would pay Washougal a nominal fee for the use of Washougal's facilities, which the city will continue to own.

There's still work to be done in early 2014, officials say.

The top priority will be hashing out how to transfer fire department employees into a shared payroll.

David Scott, Washougal's city administrator, said seniority and pay scale would be factored in for a merged department. Those terms would be subject to an agreement with the cities' unions. The combined Camas-Washougal Fire Department has 54 paid staff. It has 30 volunteers.

While the contract calls for a 10-year consolidation, it also includes a couple of escape clauses for the cities in case the merger doesn't work out. If either city chooses to nullify the contract, it may do so, without giving cause, as long as it provides two years notice. Either city could provide a one-year notice but would have to provide cause to do so.

The contract represents three years of work, Swinhart said, and hours of meetings between city officials.

"To finally get the issue settled after all that time … getting over the speed bumps is pretty amazing," Swinhart said. "The hard part is done now."