CAMAS — Six months after Camas and Washougal finished consolidating their firefighting resources, officials say the merger of the two departments has produced modest-but-notable savings.
Since 2011, the cities have been operating a joint fire department, but the transition into one unit didn’t become complete until December, when each city’s council approved a contract for a 10-year partnership. By that point, Washougal’s overtime expenses had been cut in half, declining by about $60,000.
“We always cautioned that this wasn’t going to save a ton of money upfront,” said Chief Nick Swinhart, who runs the Camas-Washougal Fire Department. “This last year, we saved quite a bit more.”
Swinhart estimates that overall the two cities have cut overtime expenses for firefighters by more than $248,000 in the past two years. But Swinhart is quick to say that not all of those savings have come from the merger.
In the first year of the merger, the department suffered more injuries, leaving healthy firefighters to work extra shifts to make up for the staffing shortages. That hasn’t been the case this year.
The department also received a grant for three additional hires, lessening the need for overtime.
Even so, the merger has already cut costs in a number of other areas, Swinhart said. The cities share crews and equipment, and combining staffs allowed them to move a firefighter into a new full-time training position.
With an in-house trainer, the department no longer needs to pay for its rookies to attend the state’s Fire Training Academy in North Bend for several weeks. So far, Swinhart says the move has saved the department about $30,000.
Perhaps the biggest change so far, though, is in response times, Swinhart said. Before the merger, Washougal’s only fire station had no ambulance.
“If somebody had a bad car accident east in Washougal on Highway 14, the ambulance had to come from here,” he said. “That’s a little bit of a jaunt, especially if traffic’s bad.”
If none was available there, the ambulance came from Station 42, located in the upper northwest corner of Camas near Grass Valley Elementary School. From there, an ambulance takes about 20 minutes just to arrive at the scene on the east side of Washougal, Swinhart said.
“Ideally, we want to be there in seven minutes or less,” he said. “You start getting out into those farther reaches, you start hitting that nine-10-minute area, and I start getting nervous.”
Swinhart estimates response times to the far side of Washougal have been cut in half since the city placed an ambulance at the downtown Washougal fire station.
Last week, the department further solidified its merger by opening a new fire marshal’s office in downtown Camas on the same block as City Hall. The move gives Fire Marshal Ron Schumacher and Deputy Fire Marshal Randy Miller a chance to finally work in the same office instead of having to coordinate over the phone from stations in separate cities.
“It seemed like a good location to finally bring those two people together into the same office space,” Swinhart said, “and it’s right next to the building department, which is where they do most of their work.”
The city is renting the space next to a Stihl saw store, which is sandwiched between the new office and City Hall. The lease gives city officials the first chance to purchase the property if it goes up for sale.
The location is key, Camas Mayor Scott Higgins said.
“That’s a strategic lease,” he said. “At some point, we would love to redevelop this block.”
Eventually, Higgins hopes to expand City Hall throughout the entire block. That won’t happen any time soon, though, he said.
In the meantime, the fire department is already looking at options to expand as Camas officials anticipate rapid growth in the next few years. Most of that growth will be in the area north of Lacamas Lake, Higgins said.
“At some point in our long-range planning, we’ll need another station up there,” he said. “We’re at the stage where it’s time to kind of be aware and looking for sites.”
Later on, Swinhart and Higgins would like to close the stations in downtown Camas and Washougal and consolidate the firefighters into a new, larger station in a more centralized location between the two cities. But that discussion is just beginning and officials haven’t decided upon a site.
As the population grows in the coming years, the department will have to deal with a higher call volume, possibly making it harder for the department to spare overtime, Swinhart said.
“Keeping overtime in check is one of the outs that the cities can use to end the merger if they want to,” he said. “So, we’ve got a vested interest, obviously, in keeping overtime under control.”