Volunteer fire chiefs in the Cariboo Regional District are so overwhelmed with administrative paperwork that many are ignoring the safety playbook – such as documenting training – and are opting to buy “desirable” items like water pumper trucks to fight wildfires rather than upgrading personal protective equipment, according to a CRD-commissioned review of the regional fire service.
The review, by retired Pitt Meadows fire chief Don Jolley, found that while fire chiefs at the CRD’s 14 volunteer fire halls should be commended for the job they’re doing, many either don’t understand or are ignoring their expanded administrative roles, putting the regional district at risk for safety liability.
“The role of the fire chief is dramatically different than it was 30 years ago,” Jolley told the CRD Committee of the Whole. “There are areas of non-compliance going on at volunteer fire departments. It puts you at serious risk as the authority having jurisdiction.”
The review, the first major look at the volunteer fire service, considered governance, legislative compliance, financial management, operations at a high level, and a long-term strategy for the CRD to ensure greater legal compliance and financial management.
Jolley noted the CRD has a “really tremendous opportunity to develop an exemplary regional model” but this will require significant changes. His report cites 93 recommendations – from installing a regional fire chief and enhancing the CRD’s protective services division to mentor and educate firefighters to providing centralized procurement and management of PPEs and apparatus across the region.
CRD directors are expected to review the report in more detail next month. Chair Margo Wagner said there are some immediate measures the regional district could take, such as clearing some of the paperwork off of the fire chiefs’ plates, but the biggest challenge will be convincing the chiefs to buy into the plan. The chiefs have pushed back in the past, for instance, when the CRD took over the purchasing of fire trucks.
“Fire departments are quirky things. All the fire chiefs we’ve got are doing a great job, but it’s tough for them to adjust,” Wagner said. “We all realize it has to be done, now we just have to convince everybody else.”
Directors agreed it will be an uphill battle to make some of the changes, noting in the past there was a debate among fire chiefs about “Chevys vs Ford” when it came to equipment and turnout gear.
But Jolley argued centralizing procurement and management would save money and ensure the firefighters were all operating safely. Standardizing the purchase of apparatus alone, he said, would save over $5 million, and provide more equity across the region.
At the moment, fire chiefs are responsible for their own budgets, which has resulted in an ad hoc system, Jolley said, with some fire halls having seven apparatus and others two. One hall he visited had three times the amount of turnout gear – at a cost of $2,500 per set – compared to the number of firefighters, while others were using 12-year-old equipment in “terrible” condition but had brand-new fire trucks that had been replaced before they were needed.
“One of the benefits of a regional purchasing program is you save money because you’re buying less of it overall. I’ll guarantee many are wearing the cheapest set (of turnout gear) that can be purchased right now. At the end of the day, they are going to want the better gear and not the brand name.”
Jolley also suggested there should be joint training sessions, noting some halls are using budget money to provide training sites when there are municipal training fields 15 miles away in 100 Mile, Williams Lake or Quesnel. He also questioned why fire halls would have water tender trucks that only carried two people or replace fire trucks before their end of life and urged the CRD to ensure fire halls without hydrants had more access to water. Some halls, like Deka Lake, aren’t connected with the 911 system.
”You’ve got a whole bunch of volunteers out there doing the work. The least you could do is make sure they’re safe doing it,” he said. “They have all these other challenges, they’re are not capable of meeting them. If you want these organizations to be compliant ready then there has to be some change.”
Wagner said the timing of the report is welcome, given that there are so many new volunteer fire chiefs. “It’s just an ideal opportunity,” she said. “Is it going to be easy? Hell no, but something has to be done.”