Knee­hill fire de­part­ments push back against county fire chief hir­ing

The Drumheller Mail - - FRONT PAGE - Kyle Smylie

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.

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