Members of the Interlakes Volunteer Fire Department are concerned about the province’s strict fire safety training, saying it could lead to a loss of volunteers.
Eugene Gerwing, a volunteer for IVFD for the past six years, said new stringent training and oversight required by the Cariboo Regional District has made the members of IVFD Hall One feel more like employees than volunteers. In the past, the training was done in-house following the old National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) 1001 guidelines specifically the 2015 British Columbia Fire Service Minimum Training Standards, Structure Firefighters Competency and Training Playbook.
That training, both the written and practical tests, was aimed to help members pass, he said. Now, the training is administered by the College of the Rockies (COTR) and Gerwing said members feel the college’s proctors are stricter about testing and aren’t as supportive.
“What’s really stark is when you get to the practical exam. If you take the NFPA 1001 practical exam, it has a list of 10 items when putting on your self-contained breathing unit and it gives you points for each item. It says they want you to do it in 60 seconds. But, if you do everything right and you don’t do it in 60 seconds you still pass,” Gerwing said.
The COTR, however, requires firefighters to complete each step in under 60 seconds or it’s an automatic fail.
“Then they say you have to do it all over again, the written exam and the five or six practical exams. You can see the stark difference between the NFPA 1001 and COTR standards. ”
Brian Carruthers, interim CAO of the CRD, said other fire departments in B.C. share the concerns of the IFVD. He noted, however, the new training standards were implemented by the Office of the Fire Commissioner two years ago, and the CRD does not have the ability to waive them.
The CRD is responsible for overseeing 14 volunteer fire departments, including Interlakes, Forest Grove, Lac La Hache, 108 Mile, and Deka Lake & District and Lone Butte in the South Cariboo. Carruthers acknowledged there have been some concerns from the IVFD Hall One, specifically around the time limit for putting on protective gear.
“They’re not standards that the CRD created, they’re provincial standards now required to ensure the safety of firefighters and also to ensure adequate coverage from fire departments,” Carruthers said.
“We’re just trying to continue to work with our departments to see how they can implement them reasonably. At the end of the day, we do have to comply.”
The Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General said in a statement the new guidelines were updated to the relevant NFPA standards.
“The Training Standards are fundamental to our efforts in working together to enhance the safety of the public and our first responders,” the ministry said.
Carruthers said many departments use COTR for their training. The CRD is looking for a workaround but said its main priority is ensuring firefighters are safe doing their work.
“There is obviously the risk of members leaving the fire department who don’t want to comply and we don’t want to see that happen but at the end of the day we have to be in compliance,” Carruthers said. “It’s a work in progress and we will continue to work with the departments to figure out how we can implement these standards and still keep our partners active.”
He said even if everyone walked out at Hall One, the CRD would ensure coverage, although it could result in longer response times.
“I think a lot of what’s perceived as the regional district taking a more active role is really around supporting the departments with the new Playbook. Previously our standards weren’t as rigorous and one of the biggest deficiencies that had been identified was the ability to implement these training programs,” Carruthers said.
“Now we are actively going out and supporting the departments so they can get their firefighters up to speed. It’s not about command and control, it’s about supporting them.”
However, Gerwing said the CRD needs to respect the wishes of the firefighters and should return to in-house training rather than relying on the COTR. He said the department has already lost 15 firefighters and the 10 at Hall One who are left don’t want to see their numbers decrease further. The IVFD has three halls in total, with Gerwing noting membership is down at the others as well.
“At Hall One we stand together. We discuss different things and as a group, we decide what we want to do,” Gerwing said. “We’ve decided we’re not going to resign because then there would be nobody left at Hall One. We can’t do that, we need to service the community.”