Emergency Responders do their job during December 7th Tragedy in Washougal

January 1, 2012

by Martha Martin

Emergency units block 32nd Street during December 7th fire and shooting tragedy on 'F' Place in Washougal. (photo Martha Martin)

On December 7th at approximately 8:45am, a call went out to local fire fighters that a home on ‘F’ Place in Washougal was on fire.  The scenario quickly turned dangerous, as fire fighters and police learned that a man, who was living in the home with his wife and sister-in-law, had shot at a citizen and a police officer.  He  continued to shoot for ninety minutes.  Fire fighters and police had to back away, letting the home burn, as they evacuated local neighbors and businesses, and sealed off the area.

Following a request for information by Silver Star Reporter, Fire Chief Scott Koehler of East County Fire and Rescue (ECFR) contributed a description of the events that occurred, offering a first hand view of the emergency responders’ experiences.

Black smoke rises from home on 'F' Place. (photo Martha Martin

Chief Koehler: East County Fire & Rescue was called, along with Fire units from Camas and Vancouver (Washougal FD was tied-up on another call—but responded to this incident when they became available), for a reported structure fire behind Safeway.  Enroute, the Dispatchers kept updating Fire crews with information about possible explosions at the incident.  Those updates than turned toward possible ammunition exploding.  Later there were broadcasts about possible shooting—instead of just loose ammo.

As I approached F Place, Dispatchers reported someone shooting at police officers.  All Fire personnel were warned to park at some distance.  This incident quickly switched from a structure with exploding ammunition (a situation that is fairly common at these events—yet still dangerous) to an “Active Shooter” situation that was complicated by a structure fire (with the potential to spread to adjacent structures).  Since Fire Fighters are not issued bullet-proof protective gear, they have no protection (nor training) to operate in an area where active shooting is occurring.

The safety of local citizens became a priority, and ECFR personnel took steps to prevent people from entering the area.

Chief Koehler's vehicle (photo Martha Martin)

Chief Koehler: I blocked F Place at 32nd, with my car, and began telling persons on the sidewalk—walking toward the fire—to leave the area.  Some people were reluctant to leave the area—concerned about the fire and/or nearby friends.  E94 (Engine 94 from the Mt. Norway Station) arrived and blocked 32nd Street north of F Place—sending southbound traffic onto side-streets west of the incident.  E91 (Engine 91 from the Fern Prairie Station) arrived and blocked 32nd Street south of F Place.  Other fire units ‘staged’ (for cover) behind the large brick building that houses the Washougal Subway.

Chief Schumacher & Chief Koehler discuss strategy as they watch the smoke from the fire. (photo Martha Martin)

Since the incident took place in the City of Washougal Fire District, Fire Chief Ron Schumacher became the incident Commander.  The Washougal Branch of the Riverview Community Bank became command headquarters.

Ambulance waiting nearby (photo Martha Martin)

Chief Koehler: Upon Chief Schumacher’s (Washougal Fire Department) arrival, he took COMMAND of the fire incident.  Fire units remained staged throughout the ‘active shooting’ portion of the incident.  During this time, Washougal FD had, approximately, 10 more calls for service.  These were handled using combinations of Washougal Fire units, neighboring fire agency units, Camas Ambulance units and/or AMR (American Medical Response).

During the incident, Chief Koehler received his assignment as Public Information Officer, and was launched into a hectic schedule communicating with all local media.  Several local television station crews were on site, setting up their equipment to record the events, pushing the limits of the restricted areas.

FOX 12 news mobile unit (photo Martha Martin)

KATU 2 news mobile unit (photo Martha Martin)

Chief Koehler: I was assigned to be the Public Information Officer for the event.  I received approximately 40 phone calls and had conversations  with approximately 15 media representatives, to include Channels 2, 6 & 12; OPB; KEX; the Associated Press; and CNN.  A PIO from Vancouver Fire also responded to assist.  Fire retained PIO responsibilities until the Sheriff’s Office provided a PIO to take-over all media contact.

Getting rest and nourishment during a long incident is critical for emergency responders.  East County Fire & Rescue provided their Rehabilitation Bus.

Chief KoehlerEast County Fire’s Rehab Bus was called to the scene to provide support to Law Officers.  A couple of residents, evacuated from their home, remained in the Rehab Bus until Law Enforcement allowed them to return to their home.  East County [Fire and Rescue] Volunteers staffed the Rehab Bus, as well as provided station backfill/fire & EMS (Emergency Medical Service) coverage during the incident.

Vancouver Police direct anxious motorists (photo Martha Martin)

Vancouver Police divert traffic south over train tracks (photo Martha Martin)

The response to this incident was Washougal’s largest in over forty years.  Agencies from throughout Clark County and into the Portland area responded to the calls for assistance.   Vancouver motorcycle police directed traffic south and over the rail road tracks at 32nd Street, answering the questions of hundreds of anxious motorists.

Several units continue to block the streets throughout the day. (photo Martha Martin)

 

 

 

Chief Koehler:  Law Enforcement requested resources from throughout the Greater Portland/Vancouver Metro area.  Over 60 police vehicles responded.  Law Officers secured the scene and tactical units surrounded the burning house.  They remained on alert for many hours.  They were very focused on containing The Shooter.  They were very professional in their interactions with Fire and EMS (Emergency Medical Service) responders.

As the shooting subsided, and the fire which burned the home was diminishing, the site had to be protected for further investigation.  The need for responders started to decrease after about seven hours, with some units leaving to attend to other calls.  The road in front of Safeway was opened for people returning from their jobs.  Washougal police were posted to watch the home site, and roads in the immediate area remained closed except to those living in the neighborhood.

Chief Koehler:  Several hours into the incident, after the fire had reduced in size—and all active shooting had stopped—Vancouver Fire units were released.  Later in the day, most Auto Aid/Mutual Aid fire units were returned to quarters.   

According to Chief Schumacher, Washougal Fire returned to their station at about 11 pm that evening.  Only one police officer sustained minor injuries from flying glass when gun fire pierced his vehicle in front of the ‘F’ Place home early in the day.  No emergency responders lost their lives during this event, and no citizens were injured or killed, with the exception of the three lives lost in what later was alleged as a murder-suicide, with a man killing his wife and her twin sister, and then setting the house ablaze as he shot off round after round of ammunition near his home.