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Sept. 23, 2021

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Reports of fireworks violations keep Clark County call center crackling on Fourth

By , Columbian staff writer
4 Photos
A complaint heat map showing the number of fireworks complaints on July 4.
A complaint heat map showing the number of fireworks complaints on July 4. (Courtesy of CRESA) Photo Gallery

Six operators at Clark County’s regional fireworks violations call center answered 1,000 calls between 7 p.m. and 1 a.m. on a Fourth of July with fireworks banned in almost all of Clark County.

That number, combined with the calls that came through 911, meant dispatchers on Sunday received about three times the calls they usually take on a daily basis, according to the 911 agency.

On June 29, when Clark County issued a fireworks ban in the unincorporated areas, the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency began work to set up a nonemergency call center, anticipating a wave of callers reporting people lighting fireworks. The county joined the city of Vancouver in outlawing the explosives due to the fire danger, and almost all other cities in the county followed.

The 311 nonemergency line was diverted to the call center over the weekend so 911 operators could prioritize emergencies. In that sense, the call center the agency organized in the span of 72 hours was a success, spokesman Eric Frank said.

On a regular day, the 911 center receives about 1,125 calls, according to Frank. On a typical Fourth of July, that number goes up to about 2,000 calls. This year, they received about 3,000 calls.

About 200 people called the fireworks line on Saturday and 50 called on Friday, according to the agency.

Those working the call center also created a heat map of where the complaints were coming from, which helped prioritize patrols.

The dispatch center knew people would be on high alert because of the fire risk and the warnings from officials about the danger of fireworks. The six additional phone lines were meant to supplement the dispatch center’s usual operations.

Still, volunteers were overwhelmed.

Around 10 p.m. Sunday, the lines went down for both 311 and 911. Frank said this affected other counties, too, including Douglas and Thurston counties. The 911 center had set up an email where people could report firework violations, and the phone line’s voicemail system directed people there if they couldn’t get through.

Frank said they realized there was a problem with the phones when a hush fell over the call center followed by a flood of emails.

The lines were down for about an hour, he said, before operators were able to call people back who were trying to report an emergency.

This was the first time the dispatch center has established a designated fireworks call center, and Frank said they learned a lot about how to do it effectively. Although there were some obstacles, Frank feels confident that the center helped streamline a response to a record number of calls.

“At any given time, there’s only 100 first responders out on the streets in Clark County,” Frank said. “We know Fourth of July is always a busy night, but our main goal was to keep those priority lines open for those emergency events, those life-threatening events. And for that I think, for the most part, we succeeded.”

Camas-Washougal Deputy Fire Marshal Randy Miller described Sunday as “the quietest night I’ve seen in my 20 years.”

Miller has worked every Fourth of July that he’s been with the fire marshal’s office. Before that, he worked for the fire department.

This year, he said he felt people understood why they made the decision to ban fireworks and respected it, at least in his community.

Fire Chief for Camas and Washougal Nick Swinhart admitted he was scared going into the weekend. He described the current conditions as matching those the area saw in September, when the sky was red with wildfire smoke.

Yet, he described residents as “hyper-aware” in wanting to avoid another devastating fire season this early in the year. There were partiers in two neighborhoods that Swinhart and Miller described as “hot spots” where they responded to people lighting fireworks.

One of the streets resisted the fire marshal’s efforts to get them to stop at first. However, Swinhart said those were the only two incidents in the eastern side of the county on an otherwise “overwhelmingly quiet night.”