On Feb. 14, 2018, Camas-Washougal Fire Department was dispatched to a residential fire alarm activation. An engine crew of two personnel were sent to investigate. At the scene, they found smoke coming from a residence and heard someone pounding from the inside of the garage door and calling for help. Making the split-second decision that often determines the difference between life and death in our profession, firefighters Mark Widlund and Jeff Martizia quickly cut a hole in the garage door and pulled the victim to safety. I praised and commended their actions in a department-wide email a short time later.
Scarcely more than a month later, I found a Washington Department of Labor and Industries inspector sitting in my office, asking questions about the incident based on a complaint filed by the firefighter’s union leadership. One of the first questions he asked was, “Have you disciplined these firefighters yet?” Confused, I replied, “No, why would we do that?” The inspector said, “Because that’s how you send the message that firefighters can’t do this again.” The fire department was cited by the state for violating safety standards shortly thereafter.
Thus began the strange saga between the CWFD and L&I. Washington Administrative Code (WAC) requires two personnel inside/two personnel outside to fight a fire, and it requires two in/one out to perform a rescue. It also provides an exception to both requirements when the rescue of a known, viable victim is involved.
CWFD leadership have spoken to the people who actually wrote the code, and they confirmed that the intent of the exception was to make certain that firefighters are not put in a position of having to decide between saving a life and waiting for more personnel to arrive on scene. In short, the code was never to stand in the way of saving a human life.
Now many years later, it would seem that L&I’s stance has changed. By citing the department and suggesting that personnel should be disciplined, L&I is asserting that it won’t make exceptions for lifesaving actions again in the future. Adding to the confusion is the fact that we are aware of other fire departments who have been evaluated by L&I under nearly identical circumstances yet not cited. As we believe the findings to be erroneous and against agency past practice, these facts will be part of our appeal of the L&I citation.
It’s important to note that CWFD is not against safe staffing practices; however, we are opposed to overreaching state rules that send the wrong message to our firefighters, who risk their lives for others every day.
Like many communities in Clark County, Camas has experienced expansive growth over the last several years. City officials are currently undertaking an evaluation of the staffing needs of the fire department, as well as all city departments. These decisions will be made as we prepare the 2019/2020 budget, and we look forward to working with our elected officials and labor group to develop a staffing plan that will support our operational deployment for years to come.
Nick Swinhart is the Fire Chief of the Camas-Washougal Fire Department.