A fire services review commissioned by the Regional District of Nanaimo has suggested turning the six District 69 fire departments into a regional service.
It is one of two options highlighted in the report by Dave Mitchell and Associates Ltd., which conducted the review last year. It was presented at the Electoral Area Services Committee meeting on Dec. 3.
The second option calls for the RDN to continue with the society-based model but it would need to amend the current agreements to align with ongoing changes to the BC Structure Firefighter Competency and Training Playbook, as well as with revisions in the worksafe and emergency program act.
The RDN currently has agreements with six volunteer fire departments administered by society boards to provide fire protection services in their respective areas.
Mitchell, in his presentation on Dec. 3, pointed out that the agreements date back to the early 2000 and need to be updated.
“A lot has changed in the past 10 to 15 years since the initial agreements with the six societies were drafted,” said Mitchell.
The RDN having jurisdiction over the operation of the six fire departments poses a complex and challenging task of meeting new regulations and liabilities. Mitchell said the RDN is not alone as this is happening across the province.
Mitchell said the RDN must be able to address clear allocation of liability and responsibility, certainty about reporting required from the different departments on operational, administrative and financial issues, increase operational efficiency while helping to manage cost, and also establish greater levels of co-ordination in the fire service.
He also pointed out that the responsibilities of firefighters has also increased over the years with medical and technical rescues continuing to rise, and also other emergencies happening more such as flooding and forest fires.
The RDN, Mitchell said, has an opportunity to make its firefighting service efficient and cost effective if they choose a regional model to keep up with changes being made in the playbook next year. It will include increase requirement for mandated documented training, additional fire ground functions, revision of worksafe and emergency program act.
RDN staff reported that currently there are only 27 remaining society-run departments outside of the regional district in the province.
Some fire department officials and society directors who listened to Mitchell’s report raised some concerns about the review and are not entirely convinced with the regional fire services suggestion.
Dashwood Volunteer Fire Department fire chief Nick Acciavatti said that most of the fire departments are already training using the NFPA guidelines.
“The playbook is a great guide but it’s not for us,” said Acciavati. “We’re training to a higher standard than the playbook as it sits right now.”
Acciavati also took exception the report failed to highlight what the fire departments in District 69 are already doing.
“I do find it a little troubling that that wasn’t stated in the report,” said Acciavati. “It would be nice that if the report stated what the fire departments currently doing right now versus just having a broad, scattered one saying that this is what we should be doing because most of the fire departments in District 69 are doing most of the items that are in the report.”
As for mutual aid collaborations, Acciavati indicated that the region already has some of the best agreements in place in the province.
“Locally here, we are looked to by other fire departments across British Columbia with some of our local fire chiefs being invited to make presentations on our automatic and mutual aid agreements that we have at the fire chief’s conference that’s held ever year,” said Acciavati. “Again, that wasn’t stated in the report.”
Some questioned the cost-saving benefits highlighted in the report.
“Working to consolidate for fire services, I really don’t see other operational efficiency increasing or cost control as far as the operation cost,” said John Jacobsen of the Nanoose Bay Fire Protection Society. “They will go up. They will not be going down.”
The Errington Fire Department’s Society also has doubts about projected savings and asked the committee not to endorse the fire department governance review.
“We think the report is flawed and I believe it is very much slanted in the direction that the RDN would prefer to take over from societies and put a district-run department in its place,” said chair Gerrard Bing, who stressed that their fire department have been able to address future changes like they’ve always done in the past.
The EASC received the Mitchell report for information. However, the committee did not decide on the options provided as they felt there were some issues that need to be explored further.
Electoral Area H (Bowser, Qualicum Bay and Deep Bay) director Stuart McLean presented a motion that the RDN form a Fire Services Advisory Committee to advise the board on matters related to fire dispatch, protection and prevention. It will consist of electoral area directors, fire chiefs from RDN funded fire departments, district fire departments as well as those not under the RDN’s jurisdiction, board chairs and treasurers of the associated fire societies.
Staff has been directed to prepare terms of reference for the EASC to be reviewed and to include exploration of an amalgamated regional fire department. The directors for Parksville and Qualicum Beach as well as their respective chief administrative officers and fire chiefs will be invited to participate in all discussions regarding an amalgamated regional department.
The committee passed McLean’s motion and the RDN board endorsed it at its Dec. 8 meeting.