A slow­down in fire truck frenzy

The Compass - - OPINION -

Eye­brows were raised last week when it be­came known the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment was dras­ti­cally re­duc­ing what its spends an­nu­ally on new fire­fight­ing ve­hi­cles. There are 60 bri­gades on a list seek­ing new ve­hi­cles, and it ap­pears the wait for many of them just got a lot longer.

Some of these ve­hi­cles have been in ser­vice for three decades and are long past the point where they can be re­lied upon to respond to any­thing but mi­nor emer­gen­cies. If you’re a vol­un­teer fire­fighter and your brigade is in this sit­u­a­tion, you have good rea­son to be con­cerned, but you prob­a­bly shouldn’t be sur­prised.

The pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment, awash in oil money and year-af­ter-year sur­pluses, has in­vested record amounts into pumper trucks and fire­fight­ing equip­ment.

In 2011, for ex­am­ple, the prov­ince cost-shared the pur­chase of 22 new fire trucks, all of which were badly needed. There were also count­less fund­ing an­nounce­ments re­lat­ing to the pur­chase of fire­fight­ing equip­ment such as bunker suits and breath­ing ap­pa­ra­tuses. In the in­ter­est of full dis­clo­sure, we should also point out that it was an elec­tion year, with the gov­ern­ing Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives and Premier Kathy Dun­derdale go­ing on to win hand­ily in the Oc­to­ber vote.

In fair­ness, we can’t ig­nore the fact that the Trin­ity-con­cep­tion re­gion has ben­e­fit­ted greatly from this largesse, which was con­firmed fol­low­ing a quick scan of The Com­pass archives. New fire­fight­ing ve­hi­cles were de­liv­ered to Car­bon­ear, Bay de Grave and Whit­bourne in re­cent years, and the brigade in Har­bour Grace is ex­pected to take de­liv­ery of an im­pres­sive new pumper/res­cue truck next month val­ued at more than $350,000. The depart­ment in Bay de Verde is also anx­iously await­ing the de­liv­ery of its new pumper.

And late last year, Trin­ity-bay de Verde MHA Char­lene John­son promised that the newly merged Cavendish and White­way fire depart­ment will re­ceive a new pumper truck within three years. The depart­ment cur­rently has two pumpers, and both have been in ser­vice for roughly 30 years.

“When you come to­gether, we’re more will­ing to step up to the plate and do that bit ex­tra,” John­son stated at the time.

The prov­ince con­trib­uted — or will con­trib­ute — greatly to these pur­chases, in some cases up to 90 per cent.

But times have changed. Pay­ments un­der the At­lantic Ac­cord have ended, amount­ing to a re­duc­tion in rev­enue of $536.1 mil­lion this fis­cal year, and ex­tended shut­downs are planned for both the Terra Nova and White Rose oil pro­duc­tion plat­forms. In bring­ing down the 2012 pro­vin­cial bud­get last week, Fi­nance Min­is­ter Tom Mar­shall fore­cast a deficit of $258.4 mil­lion for 2012-13. A re­turn to sur­plus is an­tic­i­pated by 2014-15.

In light of this, it was in­evitable that the gov­ern­ment would be­gin to cur­tail spend­ing, and in­vest­ments into new fire trucks was an easy tar­get. With three years to go be­fore the next elec­tion, the gov­ern­ment ob­vi­ously felt it could tighten the purse strings with­out ex­pos­ing it­self to any sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal fall­out. A short lull in the num­ber of fire truck ded­i­ca­tion cer­e­monies could be tol­er­ated, it was likely felt.

So in­stead of a steady stream of fund­ing an­nounce­ments, the prov­ince plans to cost-share the pur­chase of just seven fire trucks this year, and the bud­get for new equip­ment has also been halved.

Mu­nic­i­pal Af­fairs Min­is­ter Kevin O’brien, who over­sees Fire and Emer­gency Ser­vices, of­fered an in­ter­est­ing ex­pla­na­tion last week. He em­pha­sized that the flurry of truck pur­chases last year was not a po­lit­i­cal move, but a re­flec­tion of the prov­ince’s fan­tas­tic fi­nan­cial po­si­tion.

Mov­ing for­ward, he said the gov­ern­ment has to be more strate­gic in its spend­ing, and he be­lieves this should in­clude a con­tin­ued em­pha­sis on the re­gion­al­iza­tion of fire pro­tec­tion ser­vices.

“We have to de­ter­mine ex­actly how many ve­hi­cles that we do need in the prov­ince be­fore we in­vest too heav­ily and in­vest in the wrong places,” O’brien told CBC News.

We couldn’t agree more. If we have to live within our means, lets take a closer look at things. The Bay de Grave re­gional fire ser­vice, which is based in South River, and the Cavendish-white­way brigade, ap­pears to be good mod­els for the prov­ince to fol­low.

— Terry Roberts

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