Be­yond the blaze, fire­fight­ers face ever-present bat­tle for re­sources

County hir­ing fire ser­vices co­or­di­na­tor to help re­duce de­part­ment costs

The Victoria Standard - - Front Page - AN­DREW BROOKS

Fire­fight­ing has changed dra­mat­i­cally over the past fifty years. Just ask Dis­trict 4 Mu­nic­i­pal Coun­cil­lor and for­mer Fire Chief of the North Shore and Dis­trict Vol­un­teer Fire De­part­ment Mer­rill Macin­nis.

“It’s a chal­lenge get­ting young peo­ple in­volved now. Vol­un­teers don’t seem to want to come for­ward like they did,” said Macin­nis via phone May 7. “It was a no-brainer for young peo­ple to join de­part­ments 40 or 50 years ago when I was a teenager. It’s just not hap­pen­ing to­day.”

Re­cruit­ment ef­forts are a ma­jor prob­lem plagu­ing fire de­part­ments across the prov­ince. As the size of de­part­ments shrink, de­mands on fire­fight­ers’ time seems to only in­crease. Macin­nis be­lieves a lot of the added re­spon­si­bil­i­ties is the re­sult of an on­go­ing pro­vin­cial down­load­ing of ser­vices to mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and lo­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions.

“In our case, down where we are in In­dian Brook, med­i­cal first re­spon­ders weren’t even thought of 20 years ago. There was no de­part­ment of this county that had jaws of life. We have to have one, but now our $6,000 unit is becoming ob­so­lete. That's the kind of stuff we have to deal with to keep up with the times.”

Macin­nis also said traf­fic con­trol at emer­gency scenes is some­thing that used to be han­dled by the De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion. Now, fire crews are ex­pected to man­age the traf­fic them­selves.

On the pos­i­tive side, the fire ser­vice has seen tremen­dous ad­vance­ments in tech­nol­ogy for res­cu­ing peo­ple and prop­erty while in­creas­ing the over­all safety of those in­di­vid­u­als putting their lives on the line. But the shiny new equip­ment comes at a cost.

Last year, the Bad­deck Vol­un­teer Fire De­part­ment pur­chased new turnout gear for the en­tire de­part­ment af­ter learn­ing most would not meet safety in­spec­tion. The de­part­ment strug­gled to find the $50,000 needed to foot the bill. Dan Chi­as­son is the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Di­rec­tor for the de­part­ment and be­lieves a ma­jor shift needs to hap­pen in how de­part­ments are funded.

“We haven't had an in­crease for a very long time. We're work­ing with what we con­sider to be un­der bud­get. Our equip­ment is very old. Our big tanker truck, the most im­por­tant ve­hi­cle we have for fire­fight­ing in a ru­ral

area, is 35 years old. The es­ti­mates to re­place that would be $700,000. How are we go­ing to do that? The chiefs are run­ning fire de­part­ments. They have full-time jobs. They have fam­i­lies. They're just try­ing to keep ev­ery­thing work­ing. We need an ad­vo­cate.”

The Fire Chiefs As­so­ci­a­tion of Vic­to­ria County agrees. Last Septem­ber, the or­ga­ni­za­tion helped bring Guys­bor­ough County Fire Ser­vices Co­or­di­na­tor Shawn An­drews to Vic­to­ria County coun­cil to share his ex­pe­ri­ence re-or­ga­niz­ing the fire ser­vice in his county.

From that pre­sen­ta­tion, the Fire Chiefs asked Vic­to­ria County to cre­ate a fire ser­vices co­or­di­na­tor po­si­tion. Coun­cil struck a com­mit­tee of four coun­cil­lors with­out di­rect ties to the fire ser­vice (Mor­ri­son, Ma­cleod, Budge and Macdon­ald) and be­gan work­ing with the Fire Chiefs to make the po­si­tion hap­pen. Two weeks ago, the job was posted. It closes May 18.

Vic­to­ria County CAO Leanne Maceachen is hope­ful that the new po­si­tion will be an op­por­tu­nity to take an in­ven­tory of all fire ser­vice re­sources in the county and help re­duce the costs that each de­part­ment ex­pe­ri­ences.

“The Fire Chiefs get to­gether, but each de­part­ment op­er­ates as a silo now. What we've no­ticed as we pay for train­ing ses­sions is that there might be a train­ing ses­sion for the burn unit that's hap­pen­ing in Cape North, but Bad­deck may not know about it. If we have a fire ser­vices co­or­di­na­tor who's in charge of let­ting the other de­part­ments know, then we can take bet­ter ad­van­tage of the op­por­tu­nity,” said Maceachen dur­ing a court­house in­ter­view on May 3.

Be­yond cost sav­ings, Maceachen hopes the co­or­di­na­tor role can help in­crease fire­fighter safety across the board.

“This is not only about the fund­ing piece, we have to think of the safety of th­ese peo­ple [fire­fight­ers]. Th­ese are peo­ple who have other jobs and are go­ing out to save some­one's house, or re­spond­ing to a mo­tor ve­hi­cle ac­ci­dent. We want them to be trained, and have ev­ery­thing they need to be able to do this.”

Ex­actly how to fund ev­ery­thing the fire ser­vice needs re­mains an open ques­tion.

Vic­to­ria County does not have a de­fined ‘fire rate’ listed sep­a­rately from gen­eral prop­erty taxes on an­nual tax as­sess­ments. In­stead, an amount is bud­geted from the gen­eral pool. Maceachen ad­mits that it has been a long time since the fire ser­vice has seen a di­rect fund­ing line in­crease, but she said the draft bud­get cur­rently in com­mit­tee re­flects a po­ten­tial raise.

“We're hop­ing the in­crease that we're giv­ing to the fire de­part­ments, plus the fire ser­vices co­or­di­na­tor, is go­ing to help them over­all. Fundrais­ing used to be a big­ger part of how the fire de­part­ments worked, I'm not re­ally sure if that's their fo­cus as much any­more. No­body has the time re­ally to do any­thing.”

War­den Bruce Mor­ri­son also said that while there has not been an in­crease to the fire ser­vices bud­get line in some time, the Mu­nic­i­pal­ity has given to in­di­vid­ual de­part­ments in many ways over the years, in­clud­ing train­ing, wilder­ness res­cue equip­ment and cost of life in­surance for fire­fight­ers.

The Guys­bor­ough ex­pe­ri­ence is now twelve years old. An­drews told Coun­cil­lors in Septem­ber that the county funds nearly the en­tire fire ser­vice, pro­vides a reg­u­lar dis­burse­ment of turnout gear and has a cap­i­tal pur­chase sched­ule so that trucks and other equip­ment are re­placed at ap­pro­pri­ate in­ter­vals.

Maceachen pointed out that while Vic­to­ria County has much to learn from the Guys­bor­ough story, there are many things that set the two coun­ties apart – in­clud­ing much larger fi­nan­cial re­sources in Guys­bor­ough – at least his­tor­i­cally.

“We're at the very be­gin­ning stages of this, try­ing to fig­ure out what it is that we need, and then see if we can help out the fire de­part­ments with this as the first part, so we're not com­mit­ting to any cap­i­tal as­sets, or any­thing like that at this point. We're at the be­gin­ning stages of see­ing where this po­si­tion takes us.”

Whereas Maceachen em­pha­sized the in­fancy of the process, Mor­ri­son ap­peared more de­ter­mined that the Mu­nic­i­pal­ity can­not be a source of ad­e­quate fund­ing.

“I think ev­ery mu­nic­i­pal­ity would like to be able to fund fire de­part­ments to the level that fire de­part­ments would be happy. It's just that it can't be done fi­nan­cially. I think all mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties are very sup­port­ive of fire de­part­ments be­cause of what they con­trib­ute to their com­mu­nity. We have a great re­spect for fire de­part­ments, for the ser­vice they pro­vide on a vol­un­teer ba­sis, and the sit­u­a­tions that they come into. But, hav­ing said that, it's just not fea­si­ble to be able to buy them ev­ery­thing that they need.”

Im­prove­ments in Guys­bor­ough County’s fund­ing for­mu­las have helped solve more than is­sues of cap­i­tal costs. In a county equally con­cerned about an ag­ing pop­u­la­tion, Guys­bor­ough has wit­nessed a resur­gence of vol­un­teers. An­drews be­lieves much of it is tied to a re­newed sense of pride in the ser­vice, and a knowl­edge that fire­fight­ers fo­cus less on fundrais­ing and more on fire and res­cue calls.

Back in In­dian Brook, Macin­nis is left pon­der­ing the sit­u­a­tion he faces with vol­un­teers.

“It's a chal­lenge to mo­ti­vate peo­ple. It's a dif­fer­ent world to­day. If they knew that they were go­ing to be there with good equip­ment, as op­posed to in­ad­e­quate equip­ment, it might en­tice them to get in­volved.”

A lit­tle driz­zle, fog and cool tem­per­a­tures couldn't put a damper on the fun at the 7th An­nual Mid­dle River Run/walk held Satur­day, May 5. An en­er­getic and en­thu­si­as­tic crowd gath­ered at the Mid­dle River Com­mu­nity Cen­tre for the 10am start. The 10k Run...

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