Wash. fire dept. cited for safety violations after attempting to save man
The department was cited after two firefighters entered a structure to save a man's life, breaking the state code that says three firefighters need to be on scene
By Adam Littman
WASHOUGAL, Wash. — The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries has found safety violations against the Camas-Washougal Fire Department in the department’s response to a fire on Feb. 14 in Camas, and department officials fear the ruling could set dangerous precedents for firefighters around the state.
The department and East Clark Professional Fire Fighters union met with the Department of Labor & Industries Thursday to discuss a complaint the union made after the Valentine’s Day fire, in which two firefighters responded to the call and entered a structure fire to save a man’s life. State code says three officers need to be on scene for firefighters to enter a structure fire when there is “a known rescue situation.”
Camas-Washougal Fire Department Chief Nick Swinhart said the city plans on appealing the decision.
“They’re essentially saying Washington firefighters are prohibited from saving lives if there are less than three members on scene,” Swinhart said.
“In essence, the state is saying our personnel is expected to stand on the front lawn and let the person die or wait until other backup got there, which was several minutes later.”
According to press releases from both the union and the fire department, the Department of Labor & Industries is going to issue three safety violations against the Camas-Washougal Fire Department: having two firefighters enter the building without enough personnel on scene, failing to utilize certain personal protective equipment in the smoke-filled atmosphere and having old turnouts that are considered too old for use.
Swinhart said the old turnouts were at a station in the department, but not in use.
East Clark Professional Fire Fighters President Adam Brice said limited staffing in the department was the cause of the other violation, in which one of the responding officers in the Feb. 14 fire didn’t wear a self-contained breathing apparatus during the rescue. Brice said that one firefighter was supposed to remain outside the building and act as an apparatus operator. When the other officer heard a man inside the burning building, they immediately went to rescue him, and there wasn’t time to put the pack and mask on.
“That is part of the game when you don’t have enough firefighters,” Brice said.
Brice and the union went public with their dissatisfaction with department code in early March, when they put their complaints about the Feb. 14 fire on Facebook. That day, an alarm at a house on Prune Hill went off. The two-person crew arrived, and one person walked around the house. The officer heard a man inside banging on the wall and yelling for help. The two firefighters had to decide whether to try and rescue the man inside, or wait for backup.
They broke through the garage door and rescued the man and two dogs.
Union members have since gone to Camas City Council meetings to talk about the need for more staffing.
“We’re going to continue informing the public of the capabilities we have with the current response model we’re being provided by the city, being that we don’t have enough firefighters on scene to rescue people from a burning building legally,” Brice said. “It has a negative impact to function on all incidents we respond to.”
Swinhart said the city is discussing the issue, while city councilors discuss staffing needs with all departments as part of their 2019-2020 budget plans.
The two “serious” violations — the ones for going into the building and for not wearing proper equipment — are expected to come with fines. Labor & Industries is expected to let the city know the amount of the fines within the next three weeks. Swinhart said the ruling from the state agency is troubling for a few reasons.
“This chilling order could cost Washington fire departments hundreds of millions of dollars and will cause citizens to lose their lives,” he said.
Swinhart also thinks the action taken by his two firefighters on Feb. 14 is exempt from punishment in the Washington Administrative Code. In the section pertaining the fire suppression, the code reads, “No exception shall be allowed when there is no possibility to save lives or no ‘known’ viable victims.”
Swinhart said there is leeway written into the code to allow for exceptions when there is a “known viable victim.”
“They heard someone inside the garage knocking on the door and yelling for help,” Swinhart said. “The biggest issue we take with the finding is the state saying the rescue itself wasn’t allowable.”
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