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Jan. 20, 2021

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Report: Camas-Washougal Fire needs new stations, locations for faster response

By , Columbian Staff Writer
Published:
6 Photos
Fire Chief Nick Swinhart describes the Camas-Washougal Fire Department coverage area at his office at Station 42 in Camas. A consulting group recently finished a report saying the department isn't laid out well enough to provide adequate coverage, and suggested relocating two stations and building another.
Fire Chief Nick Swinhart describes the Camas-Washougal Fire Department coverage area at his office at Station 42 in Camas. A consulting group recently finished a report saying the department isn't laid out well enough to provide adequate coverage, and suggested relocating two stations and building another. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

CAMAS — The Camas-Washougal Fire Department might look quite different in the upcoming decade.

At last week’s Camas City Council workshop, councilors heard a presentation on a new master plan for the department, including relocation of Station 41, 616 N.E. Fourth Ave., Camas, and Station 43, 1400 A St., Washougal.

Chief Nick Swinhart said the area north of Lacamas Lake is probably the department’s biggest gap.

“It’s not all the way built out yet, but it’s certainly coming,” he said. “In our industry, we live and die by the response times. We’re going to struggle more and more to reach those areas farther out.”

The changes to station locations are needed to help response times, according to the report, which says National Fire Protection Association standards and the Center for Public Safety Excellence accreditation of fire departments both evaluate response time criteria. For low/medium hazard incidents, the first unit should arrive within 4 minutes, and the full assignment should arrive within 8 minutes.

‘Structural gaps’

The report broke recommendations into short-term, midterm and long-term solutions.

“Given the projected growth in population and call volume, (the department) will have structural gaps in place in the response system,” the report reads.

The report says that Camas has two under served areas: Prune Hill and the southeast side of Lacamas Lake. It suggests moving Station 41 north from its downtown Camas location, where it’s currently built into City Hall.

The report says that 48.8 percent of the department’s service area falls within 4 minutes of a fire station, and 89.2 percent falls within 8 minutes of a fire station. That made Zach Goodman of Camas nervous. Goodman, a professional firefighter who works in another jurisdiction, was the only person to get up and speak on the presentation during public comment at Monday’s council workshop. He said increased staffing should be “essential” and the department needs to be able to reach farther out developments in a more timely fashion.

The report suggests moving Station 43 north to improve coverage to the northwest area. That relocation would ideally be combined with staffing Station 95, 211 39th St., Washougal, which is currently owned by East County Fire and Rescue. The city of Washougal is working on purchasing that site, although plans don’t call for it to be used as a fire station.

“We will use the building for general office and storage purposes once we take occupancy,” Washougal City Manager David Scott wrote in an email. “Eventually it may become a station again. It is unknown when that will be in the future. It is good to have flexibility regarding its use.”

No room to expand

Swinhart said moving is necessary because there’s no room to expand at either station, unlike Station 42, which opened in 2001. Station 41 was constructed in the 1960s with an interior remodel in 2010, and Station 43 was built in 1974.

The consultants also suggested the department build a new station to serve the growing population in the Northshore/Green Mountain area. The report says its the long-term solutions are aimed at the next five to 10 years, although circumstances could push that timeline out farther.

Given that building a new fire station is a multimillion dollar project, Swinhart said these aren’t moves he anticipates coming in the near future. Still, he’s appreciative for the report.

“It’s a good starting point to plan the growth of this organization,” he said. “It was sorely needed to have that done to figure out where we’re going with all this growth coming in.”

Swinhart also said it was important to have an outside source make the plan.

The report was prepared by Don Bivins with Emergency Services Consulting International. Bivins previously spent 11 years as chief of the Vancouver Fire Department.

“In the fire service, we’re reactionary in how we respond to growth,” Swinhart said. “We know something needs to change when we see differences in call volume or response time. I’m not qualified to look to the future to predict when those things will need to be changed. Plus, if I go out and say, ‘we need more money to hire more firefighters,’ people are going to say, ‘of course the fire chief feels that way.'”

Funding firefighters

The funding of firefighters has been much discussed around east county. In late 2018, Camas councilors approved funding for five new positions, but Washougal councilors said they didn’t think they could pay for their portion of the new hires. The department serves both cities, and Washougal pays Camas for its share of the department’s services every year based on a formula.

Ultimately, Camas city councilors approved an agreement to share costs with Washougal for two new firefighters for 2019, with Camas also fully funding a new deputy fire marshal position.

Staffing levels caused some controversy due to a house fire on Prune Hill on Feb. 14, 2018. The on-duty crew was made up of two people, though state law requires at least three to act when responding to a fire. When the two firefighters responded to the fire, one walked around the house and heard a man inside the garage.

They had to decide whether to wait for another crew or rescue the man. The two broke through the garage door and rescued the man and his dog.

The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries issued three violations against the city, totaling a combined $4,800 in fines. Two of the three violations were listed as “serious” by the state department. Those violations were for having two firefighters enter a building without enough personnel on scene and failing to utilize certain personal protective equipment in the smoke-filled atmosphere.

The other violation was listed as “general,” stemming from having some old firefighting clothing that was considered too old for use. The department upheld the violations after they were appealed.

The report says the department should increase engine staffing at all three stations to three per shift. All three stations are currently staffed 24/7, with a minimum staffing of five at the downtown Camas station, four at the Washougal station and two at Station 42 in Camas.

Risk reduction

One suggestion from the report that interested Swinhart was to create a Community Risk Reduction Program, which would be used to combine emergency operations and prevention strategies into a more cohesive approach to reducing risks in the community. Swinhart said there are a lot of people in the community who could help do something like that. The plan says the plan wouldn’t just be for structure fires, but for any sort of risk in the community.

One of those risks turned tragic in Camas this August, when a 14 year old drowned at Lacamas Lake. Swinhart said water is one area the department can also use some improvement.

“We are very limited in water rescues,” he said. “We don’t have a boat. We have to call in Vancouver, Gresham or the Coast Guard if something happens. We’ve looked at adding a boat as something that could be helpful for the department.”

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