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June 27, 2022

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Camas grapples with how to fund critical needs

Fire department needs 18 more staff members, upgraded building and equipment

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Camas city officials will soon grapple with how to fund several critical needs in its fire and public works departments.

Camas interim city administrator Jeff Swanson presented the staffing and facility needs to Camas City Council members last week during a council planning session on April 29.

Among the city’s most pressing needs is adding 18 people to the Camas-Washougal Fire Department: three administrators, including a new fire chief, 12 firefighters to ensure the department is running three-person fire engine crews, and three firefighters to help fill in the gaps caused by staff members who are out on short- and long-term disability or military leave, and replacing aging fire stations and CWFD emergency vehicles.

Swanson said all other fire departments in the region are operating the industry-standard three-person fire crews while the Camas-Washougal Fire Department and East County Fire and Rescue — which covers Camas-Washougal’s northern, more rural areas — are still running two-person engine crews.

The need to fund more firefighters — and find the means to bring new firefighters on board — has been a sticking point between city officials in Camas and Washougal since 2018.

Under the 10-year agreement that merged the two fire departments in 2013, Camas agreed to be the fire department’s main funding agency and pay roughly 60 percent of the department’s costs, leaving Washougal to shoulder about 40 percent of the costs.

Washougal City Manager David Scott has said that city councilors “have generally acknowledged the need for enhanced staffing” at the Camas-Washougal Fire Department but are having trouble finding revenue to cover Washougal’s share of the new hires.

In May 2021, Camas hired consultants from Oregon-based Merina + CO to review the Camas-Washougal Fire Department partnership. Merina consultants later told city councilors from both cities that the current Camas-Washougal Fire Department model “isn’t workable.”

Swanson said he believes the consultants will recommend the cities go to voters to form a regional fire authority, but cautioned that the process could take a couple of years and will require building community support but that, in the meantime, the department’s staffing and facility needs are still crucial to the department’s ability to respond to emergency medical calls, fires and vehicle collisions.

“We have to make forward progress on staffing, apparatus and facilities now because of the time it takes” to form a regional fire authority, Swanson said.

In addition to its need for more staff, the department is also facing around $35 million worth of needed building and equipment replacements over the next few years.

Swanson and Cliff Free, CWFD’s interim fire chief, said both the downtown Camas and Washougal fire stations should be replaced in the next two to three years and that Camas will likely need a new satellite fire station to accommodate growth in the city’s North Shore area within the next five to nine years.

A consultants’ report also showed the fire department needs to replace four fire engines, one ladder truck, four rescue tools and two brush rigs within the next decade.

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