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May 15, 2021

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East county firefighters union takes issue with staffing level

Fire engine crews have two people; its says state law requires three

By , Columbian Staff Writer

A dispute in staffing size between the east county firefighters union and the Camas-Washougal Fire Department has gone public after the union wrote about its issues in a Facebook post that has been seen more than 180,000 times since it was published March 7.

In the post, East Clark Professional Fire Fighters wrote that fire engine crews are made up of two people, when state law requires at least three to act when responding to a fire.

“The employees we have, they have gone above and beyond and put themselves in jeopardy for a long time in order to provide a high quality service for the people we serve,” said Adam Brice, president of the union. “They’ve done that by taking risks that they shouldn’t have to take in this already hazardous career field.”

The Facebook post was spurred on when two firefighters from the department took one of those risks to rescue someone from a fire on Feb. 14 at a house on Prune Hill.

When the alarm went off that day, the crews from both Camas fire stations were tied up, so the Washougal crew answered the call. The two-person crew arrived to the house fire and called it in. One member walked around the house to get a sense of what was going on, and heard a man inside the garage. The two firefighters had a decision to make: try and rescue the man inside or follow Washington Administrative Code, which states if “responders find a known rescue situation where immediate action could prevent the loss of life or serious injury, such action shall only be permitted when no less than three personnel (two-in, one-out) are present and equipped to provide emergency assistance or rescue of the team entering the hot zone.”

The two broke through the garage door and rescued the man. He let them know a pet was inside the house, and they entered the house and rescued a dog, as well.

“Their brave action saved a life in that instance,” Brice said. “We were extremely fortunate to have such a positive outcome. Next time, our firefighters and the citizens might not be so lucky.”

Camas City Administrator Pete Capell said that instance was more of an anomaly than everyday life for the department, especially since the department was called out from a residential fire system instead of a 911 call.

“In 30 years, the Feb. 14 fire is the only actual fire that Camas-Washougal Fire Department Chief Nick Swinhart knows to have been communicated through a residential fire system,” according to information sent out by the city in response to the union’s Facebook post.

According to the same response, to put in a three-person crew requirement would mean the city would have to hire at least 15 additional firefighters to cover three stations at around $100,000 per firefighter between salary and benefits. That would require an additional $1.5 million a year.

Capell said another reason the Feb. 14 call is rare is because there aren’t that many calls for fires in the two cities. In 2017, the department responded to 4,462 calls, and increase from 4,227 in 2016 and 3,962 in 2015, according to the department’s 2017 annual report. Around 80 percent of calls to the department are for medical services, Brice said.

Also helping fight fires in the city is an ordinance passed by city council on April 18, 2016, which states that all newly constructed homes must have fire sprinklers.

Brice said the union has requested additional firefighters in the department for years without much luck. He said the department doesn’t have enough firefighters to “properly protect” residents in both cities.

“The union needs to have three firefighters assigned to every fire engine so that the first arriving fire engine has the ability to enter a burning building to rescue people and in doing so, saves lives,” he said. “The union wants to have the ability to legally enter the burning building to extinguish the fire and save property, which would require four firefighters on every fire engine.”

According to Washington code, a minimum of four firefighters is required at a working structure fire, with “two individuals working as a crew in the hot zone and two individuals present outside the hot zone available for assistance or rescue of firefighters.”

Growing area

The Camas-Washougal Fire Department merged in 2014 from the two cities’ individual fire departments. Camas manages the department, and Washougal pays a lump sum for the department’s services each year, according to David Scott, city administrator for Washougal. The East Clark Professional Fire Fighters has 50 firefighters between Camas-Washougal and East County Fire and Rescue.

The department has three stations: one in downtown Camas, one in the Grass Valley area of Camas and one in Washougal. Each station has a fire engine and ambulance, and crews are cross-trained to respond to both sorts of calls. There could be a fourth station in the department at some point.

Camas is growing, which includes development coming in north of Lacamas Lake in the area known as North Shore. A new elementary school will open there in the fall, and more new homes are being built in the area.

“We need a station up there,” Capell said. “A station up there is in our (comprehensive) plan.”

He added that there is an East County Fire and Rescue station near there already. Recently, Camas city officials have been discussing possible consolidation efforts between the department and East County Fire and Rescue. The two already share a chief, as Swinhart leads both departments after a 2016 agreement. City officials from Camas and Washougal and East County Fire and Rescue commissioners have an exploratory committee to discuss options that is expected to host its first meeting later this month.

Capell said he doesn’t think those discussions will have any impact on fire engines expanding to three-person crews.