Joe Schmick

Photo: Washington House Republicans

OLYMPIA, WA - In April of 2019, flash floods rushed into certain parts of Pullman, stranding several citizens and resulting in extensive rescue efforts by emergency personnel. Firefighters assessed the swift-moving water and determined a nearby front loader was the best option in rescuing a total of 22 people.

Shortly afterwards, the City of Pullman was fined by the state Department of Labor and Industries because of safety violations stemming from the rescue efforts. “The firefighters did their job and we as a community couldn't be more proud of them,” said Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax. “They assessed the situation, thought outside the box, adapted and overcame the obstacles in front of them. As a result, nearly two dozen citizens escaped serious injury or worse. If there was ever a time to insert some common sense into state law, it was at that moment.”

The problem, says Schmick, is that L&I has limited options when a complaint is received. “They continued to believe they were right and the only option was to levy these fines. Instead of thinking, 'Gee, maybe this isn't what the law is about – punishing first responders for saving lives,' they doubled down on their insistence that they had the right and the responsibility to fine the firefighters,” said Schmick. “Even the director said his hands were tied, that he didn't have the discretion to overrule his underlings. Well, my bill will change that,” said Schmick.

House Bill 2585, introduced this week in Olympia, would give the director of L&I more discrepancy to waive fees or modify penalties when action is taken to avoid imminent loss of life or serious injury. “It is somewhat frustrating that it takes legislative action to bring some common sense into the situation,” said Schmick. “To me, this was a practical matter; something that could have been decided on the spot and then we all move on.”

Instead, Schmick was told repeatedly that once a complaint has been filed and evidence of violations found, a fine must be levied. “My legislation provides some practical oversight and accountability to the department so hopefully we can avoid these situations in the future,” said Schmick. “I believe our firefighters are well-trained, well-equipped, and well-able to assess their safety and those they're rescuing. Do we want our first responders looking over their shoulders during emergency situations, thinking they could be fined if they used this technique or that piece of equipment? I know if I'm in need of rescuing, I want them focused on the job at hand, free to think outside the box to bring about the best outcome for all of us.”

The 60-day 2020 legislative session began Monday, Jan. 13.