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Oct. 2, 2022

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Camas-Washougal firefighters at ‘breaking point’

Overtime takes toll; city officials OK pay raises, new contract

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Camas-Washougal firefighters are “at a breaking point” due to mandatory overtime caused by staffing shortages, and there are no immediate solutions, according to Camas-Washougal Fire Chief Nick Swinhart.

“We are so appreciative of our staff working this mandatory overtime and changing family plans and really pulling out all the stops to keep it going, but they’re at a breaking point,” Swinhart told city councilors during a Nov. 15 workshop. “All of the options available are long-term. There are no immediate fixes.”

Despite a new contract approved by the city on Nov. 15, the department still faces challenges with a number of firefighters out on medical, family and military leave; firefighters who have quit the Camas-Washougal Fire Department to take positions at other — often higher-paying — fire departments; new firefighter recruits at the fire academy who won’t be able to fully take over until next summer; and a changing employee culture that values family and free time over the higher pay associated with overtime hours.

“Out of 52 line personnel, we have 20 percent out on leave,” Swinhart said.

To cover for those employees, the department needs firefighters willing to work overtime. When there are too few firefighters to staff a station and no employees willing to take on the voluntary overtime hours, firefighters must work mandatory overtime.

While local firefighters have been asked to work overtime in the past, Swinhart said the current mandatory overtime situation is unprecedented. Now, firefighters who come in to work their regular shifts worry that they’ll be placed on mandatory overtime and have to arrange for child care or cancel plans they had for their days off.

Camas-Washougal firefighters, who face working up to 60 consecutive hours of overtime before getting a 12-hour break, are overworked, and the mandatory overtime is beginning to take a toll on their health, Swinhart said.

“We’ve had three who have suffered serious cardiac events while on duty,” the fire chief said. That includes one firefighter who suffered a heart attack in early November after working nearly 300 hours of overtime. Post-traumatic stress disorder claims also are on the rise among local firefighters, Swinhart said.

“If somebody calls in sick and we’re at minimum (staffing levels), we either hire on overtime to fill that spot or close a fire station down,” Swinhart said. “Those are the two options I have to consider as a fire chief.”

Swinhart said he doesn’t know of any other fire departments in the region that are in the same situation as the Camas-Washougal Fire Department.

“Portland-Vancouver (fire departments) have much larger staffing bases, so they can absorb these vacancies, but (in Camas-Washougal) even eight to 10 people (on leave) can have a tremendous impact,” Swinhart said, again noting that the current mandatory overtime situation is something he has never experienced in his 32-year career as a firefighting professional.

On Nov. 15, the council voted 5-1 to approve a three-year contract with the union local representing firefighters, who had been working a year without a contract. Councilwoman Shannon Roberts voted against the contract.

The new contract, which will be retroactive to the start of 2021, includes a 10 percent wage increase over three years, as well as annual cost-of-living adjustments.

The contract will give firefighters a salary range of $6,660 to $7,991 per month in 2021. Firefighter-paramedics will earn between $7,326 and $8,790 per month in 2021 under the new contract. The contract includes a 2 percent cost-of-living increase in 2021, 4.5 percent cost-of-living increase in 2022 and a 4 percent wage adjustment in 2021 and 3 percent wage adjustment in 2022 for all fire department employees represented by the union.

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