BC volunteer firefighters feel the strain

Fallen power lines bouncing along roadways may produce "beautiful" and "stellar" light shows, especially in the winter, but a fire chief on southern Vancouver Island says his volunteer force shouldn't have to respond to such calls anymore.

Rob Patterson of Malahat Volunteer Fire & Rescue says colleagues across British Columbia are feeling the strain as they take on more and more unpaid responsibilities that exceed their traditional tasks of battling flames and responding to medical emergencies and motor-vehicle crashes.

In the central Kootenay community of Winlaw, the issue boiled over recently when the department was asked to perform traffic-control duty for a community meeting following a major jet-fuel spill. The chief refused and was suspended, prompting the community's 19 volunteer firefighters to leave their posts until the regional district agreed to lift the suspension and appoint a panel to look at the wider issue.

The provincial government lays firefighting decisions in the hands of local governments, while BC Hydro and federal agencies like the RCMP frequently call upon the volunteers for help.

Patterson said part of the problem is volunteers aren't willing to say No.

"I don't want to be the bad guy to say 'No. We're not coming to do that,'" he said. "But, you know, I'm increasingly finding that I do have to say No. My guys ... they've got to get home to their families. They're not paid for this stuff. They're out there, you know, half the night or half the day."

British Columbia is served by about 350 independent, community-based fire departments that employ about 4,000 career firefighters and 10,000 volunteers, according to a 2009 report by the Fire Services Liaison Group, an organization that represents chiefs, professionals, officers and volunteers.

Of the 350 departments, 170 operate in municipalities and regional districts.

But from Victoria to communities like Winlaw, government officials are reluctant to take total responsibility for tasking volunteer departments with workloads.

Kelly Gilday, B.C.'s acting fire commissioner, said in an emailed statement the responsibility for determining resourcing needs and personnel decisions, as well as service levels and policy, rests with local governments.

"Since the needs of different communities vary, fire services are not structured one and the same. A one-size-fits-all universal framework doesn’t always meet individual needs of a community. Flexibility is key," said Gilday.

Provincial legislation doesn't even include provisions governing local fire services, added a spokesman for the justice ministry in an emailed statement.

Even at the local-government level where municipalities have the authority to make decisions, not every decision is made top-down. In some cases, volunteer departments are asking to take on more tasks, said Brian Carruthers, the chief administrative officer of the Regional District of Central Kootenay, the jurisdiction responsible for Winlaw.

"Increasingly, over the years we're seeing them getting into road rescue, we're seeing them getting into first-responder services and that doesn't always come from the top," he said. "A lot of time that's initiated by the individual departments who see themselves, and rightly so, seeing them playing a more broad role in the community with respect to emergency response."

He said the recent request to perform traffic-control work in Winlaw was a "one-off" instance.

Simi Heer, a spokeswoman for BC Hydro, said the utility hasn't sent correspondence to volunteer departments requesting help with downed power lines, and it doesn't expect firefighters to deal with any sort of electrical equipment.

But as emergency responders, volunteer firefighters are asked to keep members of the public and themselves at least 10 metres away from fallen power lines, she said.

Heer said BC Hydro asks people to call 911 when they see downed power lines, and because such incidents are emergencies, volunteer firefighters are called out as first responders.

"We need help to make sure that area's safe until our crews and contractors can respond to fix it," she said. "So that's kind of the capacity we deal with them in."

Patterson continues to answer calls in his Vancouver Island community, regardless of the requests.

The 50-year-old chief who has worked his way up from the department's lowest rung said his 22-member roster includes toy-sore employees, shoe sellers, office workers, and an oral surgeon, and he said all are paid $5 for attending training nights, money intended to pay for gas.

Patterson said his stipend is just a "couple grand" annually for volunteering 15 to 30 hours each week.

His available members respond annually to more than 100 calls, many of which take place on the Trans Canada Highway, but another volunteer department in Mill Bay, just a few kilometres away, responds to more than 300 a year.

Calls to structural fires have been dropping, and in the past two and one-half years his department hasn't responded to such an emergency, he said.

Instead, he said 90 per cent of the emergencies his department answers are first-responder calls, especially motor-vehicle accidents, and the rest are related to small fires in yards. The volunteers are also responding to woodland fires and performing traffic-control duty at crash sites at the request of the RCMP.

After completing traditional first-responder tasks, volunteers will be asked by the Mounties to remain at the scene to provide lighting and vehicle-stabilization services, the latter job requiring the use of cables hooked between fire trucks and damaged vehicles.

At an accident on a local highway last fall, volunteers spent an additional two to three hours on scene, he said.

But one of his department's biggest problems, Patterson said, is answering calls to downed power lines.

"If they're live, they get really bright and they bounce around the road," he said.

Patterson said his department used to park its trucks across the road and camp out until Hydro crews showed up, a task that can take four to five hours, but the response is impractical and he's not endorsing it any more because his members get stuck out at locations with no remuneration.

"I deal with residential house wiring and commercial installations," said Patterson, an electrician by trade. "I don't deal with 14,400 volts that's bouncing around on the road.

"I'm not a Hydro guy, and I don't want to take over Hydro's problems."

He said Hydro crews and their contractors are qualified and paid to respond, and the issue has been raised for the past few years at the annual conference of the Fire Chiefs Association of British Columbia.

Still, Patterson said he loves his job, and his volunteers sign up because they care about their communities.

He wants British Columbians to speak out.

"If they were to make mention to their councillors, their regional boards, whatever the governing bodies are, you know, 'We don't want our fire guys doing this ... this is not what they're there for. Let's not waste their valuable input.'

"I have no desire to waste my time. If I don't have to be there, we're gone. We're going back to our lives. To be having any of these guys out there unnecessarily is a poor use of their volunteering abilities."

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