Combining the Aberdeen and Hoquiam fire departments has been attempted several times through the years, but officials are hoping a combination of serious financial straits and a successful model to work from will make this effort the one that sticks.
The cities announced last week they’re taking another hard look at options to combine their fire and emergency medical services.
“We’re not putting a timetable on but it is something that we’re seriously looking at,” Hoquiam City Administrator Brian Shay said. “My hope is it’s something that we’ll look at aggressively and in a more rapid fashion.”
“This has been going on since 1978, and probably even before that,” Aberdeen Fire Chief Tom Hubbard said of merger efforts. “We operate together already. Myrtle Street really doesn’t exist when there’s an emergency, we go back and forth seamlessly. Other departments and other areas are looking at it. If it can increase operational effectiveness and sustainability, we wouldn’t be good managers if we weren’t looking at it.”
What that means for staffing, command structure, equipment and form of the organizations themselves are all questions to be resolved. So far, there have only been two meetings on the subject with a lot of ground left to cover, Shay said.
“There’s lots of different options,” Shay said. “One of the things we’re specifically looking at now is a functional consolidation. We’re at the very preliminary stages. There is a model in our state between the cities of Camas and Washougal, that recently did pull off a merger, and we’re looking hard at that model.”
“It’s basically an interlocal agreement between the two agencies, very similar to the City of Oakville contracting with the Sheriff’s Office for police services,” Shay continued. “They came up with a new name, the Camas/Washougal Fire Department, and a new patch. They really have the appearance that they’re one new organization, not that they’re just the Camas Fire Department providing services to the City of Washougal, it’s really one organization for both communities.”
To make that happen, the Camas Fire Department hired Montesano native and Aberdeen Fire veteran Nick Swinhart as chief in 2011. Swinhart was the chairperson of a 2008 effort to look at a regional fire authority merging eight departments from the Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Montesano and Cosmopolis areas during his term on the Montesano City Council.
“That was the one I was most familiar with,” Swinhart said. “Of course, that one never came to anything. It was just too many agencies. … We said that if future efforts were going to be successful it would have to be a much smaller scale.”
Swinhart is now chief of the joint department.
“The working relationship between Camas and Washougal was always very similar to what we had in Aberdeen and Hoquiam because we’re bordering cities,” he said.
And, like Aberdeen and Hoquiam, Camas and Washougal had a legacy of failed attempts to combine their services.
“What finally made it work was, first of all, putting everyone together at the outset,” Swinhart said. “That’s a lesson we took from our friends in Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue (in Tigard, Ore.). … They consolidated a lot of different fire districts over the years and they’re a huge district now.”
“When they absorb a city or a fire district, those people who are being absorbed, they’re not allowed to just stay there at that station and not have to mix with other people,” Swinhart continued. “They purposely distribute them throughout the system, so they have to work with other people and it sort of forces cooperation. Some people aren’t going to be happy and that’s going to happen anywhere, but it’s a huge part of the success we’ve had down here.”
That’s the only part of the consolidation that happened quickly.
After Swinhart took charge, the departments slowly combined over the course of a three-year trial. In January of this year, they finally signed an official agreement for the next 10 years.
“When you take three years like we did, that gives you time to look at every nook and cranny of the partnership,” Swinhart said. “That helps maintain the support of those elected officials.”
For department staff, the change was simple: Everyone stayed. All the positions were kept after the consolidation, even the captains.
“Fortunately, they lined up perfectly. Washougal had line captains and Camas did as well, they just came together. Nobody was forced out or lost their rank or anything because of that,” he said.
Down the road, Swinhart added, the combined department will likely consider whether it needs to replace people as they leave, or whether apparatus need replacing, but there are no plans to get rid of anyone or anything.
Bumps in the road
“When I came in here, I thought the biggest problem I would have is you throw all these guys together and next thing you know, we’ll have fisticuffs outside the fire station because someone wasn’t getting along, but that wasn’t the case at all. The first day of the merger you walk in and you see Camas and Washougal guys sitting around in the kitchen having a cup of coffee,” Swinhart said. “There’s always going to be bumps in the road. Anytime you change someone’s comfort level, you’re going to have unhappy people.”
Getting buy-in from elected officials was a key part of keeping things going. As in Aberdeen and Hoquiam, political concerns had derailed more than one effort to merge.
“We had elected officials in both cities who were skeptical because they knew what had happened in the past,” Swinhart said. “A lot of my efforts, personally, were to be at a lot of city council meetings, sometimes not saying a thing, but to be there to answer questions.”
That also allowed him to address any rumors as they cropped up.
“Somebody heard once we consolidated we were going to sell all the Washougal vehicles, or close down their fire station, which of course wasn’t true, but those things, they build and you have to address them,” Swinhart said.
They dodged a considerable bump because of Washougal Fire Department Chief Ron Schumacher’s willingness from the start to join the district as a division chief.
“I’ve done research on fire mergers in the past, and one of the biggest friction points is, you’ve got two or more chiefs and both of them want to continue to be chiefs. That kills mergers all the time,” Swinhart said.
The cost of providing emergency medical services can be high and unpredictable. Hoquiam Fire reported a 9 percent decrease in ambulance call volume and a 10 percent drop in revenue in 2013, but still has the costs of maintaining its system.
Aberdeen Fire also experienced a decline last year, about 2.4 percent, Chief Hubbard said, but so far this year calls are up about 10 percent.
“It’s really hard to predict call volume,” Hubbard said. “I will say both agencies are very busy. … This is not a well area. Socioeconomic factors and lifestyle choices all factor into that.”
Grays Harbor Community Hospital has reported about 75 percent of people who use its services have Medicare, Medicaid, or some other form of government insurance.
Even when the departments get medical calls, Medicaid reimbursement for those services is about 17 to 20 percent of the actual bill, Hubbard said. Medicare isn’t much better at 40 to 50 percent.
“That ties in to what the hospital is talking about” regarding its need to become a public district, Hubbard said. “It’s the byproduct of providing health care in this type of economic climate. It is what it is.”
It’s becoming increasingly clear that something needs to change in order to maintain services.
“We have to do something,” Shay said. “We cannot run our ambulance utility in the red.”
“I had the saddest day of my career here Tuesday having to hand out four layoff slips,” Hoquiam Fire Chief Paul Dean said. “I’ve been through some of the toughest times in Hoquiam but we’ve always managed to pull through and do layoffs through attrition.”
“Right now it seems like a good time” to merge, he continued. “Over my almost 34-year career here, forming a regional fire authority or merger talks have happened three or four times, but have always been sidetracked from politics on one side or the other. It seems like both chiefs are on board with this, both unions are on board. We’ve both been doing more with less for quite some time — we’re just not going to bury our heads in the sand over it if we can come up with a solution that produces an equal or better service for the citizens.”
“If it was ever going to work up there,” Swinhart said, “I think they have the right people in place to make it work now.”