Kneehill fire departments push back against county fire chief hiring
Kneehill County’s decision to hire a county-wide fire chief is receiving criticism from the county’s fire committee who say they should have been consulted before the decision was made in February.
At their February 27 meeting, Kneehill County moved to budget around $180,000, including expenses like equipment, to fill a county fire chief position which had sat vacant since 2013. The decision drew concern from municipal fire chiefs due to their perceived lack of communication and consultation, including the Torrington fire chief, Michael Bauer, who eventually submitted his resignation from the position in July.
Bauer and deputy fire chief Paul Devos have sat for 20 years on the county’s fire management committee, which works with the county’s six municipal fire departments to coordinate fire protection services and strategy, and they say the committee was not consulted prior to the decision to fill the county fire chief position.
While the county is within its right to renew the position, saying in a August 22 letter that “no consultation is required with the fire management committee or our regional fire ‘partners,’ Devos and Bauer feel the municipal departments should have been involved in the decision because they have long agreed to provide fire protection services on county land. Kneehill County does not have its own fire service outside of having jurisdiction over the Torrington Fire Department, which covers approximately 300-400 residents.
“The committee’s role in the county is to recommend policy and procedures. Our take on them announcing a county fire chief was too bold. First of all, did they consult with their fire management committee? They did not consult with regional partners and that wasn’t consistent with a change of that magnitude,” Devos says, who also points out the group does not deny council’s right to make those decisions, but is concerned over a lack of transparency and communication.
This comes shortly after a similar situation in Wheatland County, which gave first reading to a fire bylaw in August without consulting with their fire partners and quickly received condemnation from county fire associations. Wheatland has since said they will offer consultation prior to moving on to further readings.
Is Kneehill County not entitled to have a fire chief to provide protection for our 5,000 residents?” Jerry Wittstock Kneehill County Reeve
The Kneehill County fire chief has since issued a 170+ page document outlining recommended standard operating guidelines, which was for the most part panned by municipal fire chiefs, who said ‘they don’t apply to rural fire services unless they increase their budgets,’ Bauer and Devos say. Municipal CAOs in Linden, Acme, Trochu, Carbon, and Three Hills said they would need time to discuss with their respective fire chiefs.
“Whether that arises from Kneehill believing there’s problems, or being notified of this liability risk, isn’t clear,” Devos says.
Kneehill County Reeve says the decision to reinstate a county fire chief was to streamline communication between county council and administration and the municipal fire departments. The county currently does not have jurisdiction over how municipal departments operate, but provides them with two pieces of equipment and $42,000 to be used at their discretion.
“Is Kneehill County not entitled to have a fire chief to provide protection for our 5,000 residents?,” he says, adding that the fire chief would be on scene at fire incidents in county jurisdiction and act as a liaison between the departments and council, while also assessing equipment and other needs in the county.
Reeve Wittstock says last fall there was a large stubble fire west of Acme where three fire departments responded.
“We were trying to decipher whether to call a local state of emergency, but we
couldn’t get any contact back from scene command. So now we have someone in charge that communicates with the county and gives us updates on what happens in Kneehill County,” he says. “We realized the importance of having someone on scene to communicate back to county representatives.”
Reeve Wittstock says the departments are maybe resistant to change they do not like, but it is change the county sees as important to its 5,000 residents.
“It’s the county that hired the person, it’s not the fire chiefs who hired this person – it’s the county. There’s a lot of things people seem to think they should be consulted on. The county pays a lot of money for fire protection and that means we want to get the best bang for our buck.”
As Kneehill County plans to develop a Fire Management Strategy this fall, Devos says fire departments are concerned the hiring of the fire chief is a step toward the county assuming greater control over how municipal fire departments operate.
“There are jurisdictions in Alberta that have pissed off their firefighters and those jurisdictions had to spend huge amounts of money to bring in full-time firefighters to cover the jurisdiction,” he says.