OKIB firefighters walk out

Seven firefighters from the Okanagan Indian Band Fire Department have walked off the job this week — six last weekend and one more last night. 

They handed in their personal protective equipment and resigned their positions.

The group no longer feels safe doing their job.

The group claims they had no other choice, safety concerns have been an ongoing issue.

According to members of the group, two other firefighters were fired for trying to address those concerns — one earlier in the month, one on Friday. 

That makes nine firefighters who have either quit or been fired in the month of March.

Members of the group say the two who were fired were experienced, but also most vocal about the need for changes. 

"We were worried somebody was going to get killed," said one member of the group. "We brought these issues up for about two years to everybody, and nothing was being done."

Eventually, the group went over the head of the then acting fire department chief to the Okanagan Indian Band. They provided a detailed memo of their concerns.

In the memo, they stated that junior staff was "inadequately trained" and put other members at risk of injury. 

They stated the equipment was outdated, and some members didn't even have the basics, like coveralls. 

They stated that those in charge were not fit to hold those positions, and more qualified candidates should be considered.

They stated members of the OKIB Fire Department attended calls intoxicated.

They stated firefighters were routinely subjected to racism and sexism.

The group was hopeful for change and assumed they would be protected by a whistleblower policy. 

However, they claim that because of the nepotistic nature of the department, once the letter was sent to OKIB they were bullied by influential members of the community.

An external investigation was launched, the acting chief was placed on administrative leave and a new chief was brought in to run the department. 

But still, members of the group claim they faced intimidation and harassment. 

"That is why we all quit," one member says.   

Members of the group claim they would be at fire practice and people would be driving around outside of the building trying to intimidate them.

They claim they would attend calls and face threats from the people they were trying to help. 

There were times, they claim, they feared for their lives. 

"I brought up all the bad things to our new acting chief," one member said while crying. "I asked how to stop all the bad things people were saying about us and he told us we would deal with it internally."

The group claims they were never approached about the letter or asked why they submitted it.

"We are the laughing stock of the surrounding fire departments."

There is a roster of firefighters with the department, but the group claims there is only one qualified member now, other than the new acting chief.

"People were showing up to call without any medical training at all. They call themselves firefighters because they are there, but they have no training. That is the scary part."

The Okanagan Indian Band did provide Castanet a statement on the allegations. 

The Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB) is conducting an independent review of its Fire Department. 

The decision to carry out this review was a result of receiving a letter from members of the fire department outlining possible deficiencies at the OKIB Fire Department.

The OKIB Administration, which oversees the fire department, takes all allegations of deficiencies very seriously. 

The administration immediately secured an external expert advisor, who has no ties with OKIB Council, Administration, or the Fire Hall, to conduct its independent review.

The review will help identify safety issues, training needs, and resource gaps. 

While this review is being carried out, OKIB’s Administration has placed its two senior firefighters on administrative leave to ensure a fair and transparent process.

Additionally, OKIB immediately hired an experienced firefighter to oversee the OKIB Fire Department as Acting Fire Chief. 

He temporarily replaces the Fire Chief who is on administrative leave.

Currently, the OKIB Fire Department has up to two dozen volunteers. OKIB is confident that it can address local emergencies, either with existing staff or with its partnership with neighbouring agencies,
if and when needed.

It should be noted that many First Nations fire departments across Canada are dealing with similar issues due to significant underfunding. 

The lack of funding for many First Nations fire departments results in a dire need of equipment, essential training, and related support.

Despite the lack of funding, the OKIB commits a substantial amount of its own resources to ensure that it has an operational volunteer fire department.

OKIB Administration will wait until the external review is complete before it comments further on this matter.

A member of the group of firefighters is still holding out hope that there will be a resolution, saying "This was a very tough thing to do, but we still want to protect our community and they deserve to know what's going on so they can protect themselves."

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