Cross-river response: states bridge divide for emergency assists

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

March 10, 2007

Hood River County firefighters and medics could soon be protected from lawsuits while helping with an emergency across the Columbia River.

“We need to make sure the liability that first responders encounter as a result of entering into intergovernmental agreements is no different than the liability they normally incur when protecting their own citizens,” said Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches.

He and Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, have co-sponsored House Bill 2583 to protect public agencies in border areas of the state. For example, Oregon currently limits the liability that government entities can incur to $50,000. However, there is no cap on legal challenges brought in Washington State — a major source of concern for insurance carriers.

HB 2583 allows Oregon responders to enter into an interstate cooperative agreement that holds them harmless for providing assistance in a neighboring state.

Smith said the legislation will also serve communities along the borders of Idaho and California. She said an amendment is now being considered to also tuck search and rescue operations into the bill.

“We want our emergency responders to be able to go wherever they are needed, especially in rural areas with limited manpower,” said Smith.

She and Metsger brought the bill forward after hearing concerns from Cascade Locks Fire Chief Jeff Pricher and Hood River Asst. Fire Chief Devon Wells last summer. The state officials were seated on the Joint Interim Committee on Emergency Preparedness and held three forums to gather public comment.

At a field hearing in Sandy, Wells said the City of Hood River had enough liability coverage to allow responders to cross Washington State with a “be careful” warning. However, he said most of the local departments, primarily those made up of volunteers, were financially unable to take that risk.

Pricher, who testified in Salem on Tuesday in favor of HB 2583, reiterated his previous testimony that Cascade Locks, as a small town in a remote location, was dependent upon help from outside sources during a major incident.

He said both Corbett and Hood River agencies have time delays for response because they are located about 20 miles away. But firefighters and medics from Stevenson, Wash., can arrive within minutes since they are sited just across the river.

In return, he said Cascade Locks helped Stevenson out during an Amtrak train derailment several years ago.

“If this legislation passes then we’ll be able to respond with a little more confidence and our governments will be a little more at ease as well,” Pricher said.

Smith and Metsger have also co-sponsored Senate Bill 459 to provide volunteer firefighters with a $250 credit on their state income taxes. The legislators felt that people who donated time to their community should be compensated in some way for that service.

“We are trying to do everything possible to help our emergency responders in any way that we can,” Smith said.

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