Penticton firefighter union calling for more staff to help with burnout and better response

Dire lack of firefighters

Casey Richardson

The union president of the Penticton Professional Firefighters is trying to bring awareness to the department's short-staffing, as fire crews deal with burnout and growing emergency calls in the city.

“Right now is a perfect time where everybody seems to be talking about public safety in their political campaigns. I'm just trying to bring awareness that we are a big key component of public safety. We're boots on the ground dealing with a lot of problems firsthand. We're first responders,” union president Curtis Gibbons said.

“The model that has worked in past generations decades ago is no longer sufficient in my eyes. We rely a lot on off-duty staff to come in and help bolster our response to larger incidents.”

Lately, the department has been consistently calling in off-duty staff to help supplement their team. Gibbons said the situation is getting dire and could get much worse.

Every year, city council receives a report from the fire chief with budget requests, and through budget deliberations, decides on how much money is allocated to hire new staff and which options presented are chosen.

“At the budget cycle, I present the city and leadership and the city council a business case on why we need more firefighters, which has been accepted and endorsed by mayor and council,” fire chief Larry Watkinson explained.

The chief has been working towards hiring more staff to meet the standard of the four-per-truck model, and his goal is to reach 40 total in the next three years.

“I know that our elected officials do support that, it is also a matter of getting there at a pace that is acceptable to our community and the taxpayers,” he said.

Gibbons agreed that the base number that the fire department has been trying to get to since the early 2000s is 40 suppression firefighters between their two stations to achieve fully-staffed fire engines.

“That would give us enough people on the books to run four-person engines 24/7, 365.”

Staffing numbers currently sit at 36 suppression staff. But combined with parental leave, medical and mental health leave, that number drops down further.

“We're so understaffed, we're finding that burnout combined with the types of calls that we're facing, they're very challenging and they present issues to our members like PTSD and other types of traumas,” Gibbons said.

“I was the 32nd firefighter hired in 2009, as the department grew from 28 to 32. That was in 2009, 13 years ago. We've only increased a few positions in that amount of time.”

With current numbers, their minimum staffing number is often three firefighters per engine. Bolstering that number to four would make a substantial difference.

When the department responds with three firefighters to an engine and gets on the scene of an IDLH (immediately dangerous to life and health) atmosphere, they can’t enter the building until a second engine arrives, since at least four firefighters have to be on scene to meet WorkSafe practices.

“When we show up with less than four, we're not doing nothing. We're going to be taking as many actions as we can from the exterior of the fire. But we need to wait to have enough staff on the scene before we can make entry,” Gibbons said.

This becomes more challenging as their second set of crews could get tied up in another emergency.

“We're having a hard time maintaining a truck free so that we have one four-person engine available 24/7 to get on scene and then we can make entry. We're constantly tied up with other emergencies,” Gibbons said.

Watkinson acknowledged that operationally there are challenges when the department has multiple calls at the same time.

“I'm an advocate for our fire department and I do know that we need to staff more and so do our city officials and our elected officials. It's how we get there in an appropriate way.”

Gibbons said his frustration is that year after year, the city is posting significant growth in building permit values and new construction, but the department is not growing at the same rate as the community.

“We're densifying at a significant rate in our downtown hub. And we need to see the emergency services keep up with that growth because we are a part of the infrastructure that services our community,” he said.

These situations become increasingly tight when call volume peaks in the summer months.

Watkinson said that improving the situation comes to achieving that balance where the firefighters are in the fire station ready to respond to emergencies, and the department finds ways to reduce the number of calls they are required to respond to.

As first responders, firefighters have been consistently aiding in calls that paramedics and ambulances can’t immediately attend to, tying up their resources.

Gibbons said that the short staffing is hitting many industries, but hopes that Penticton will make that move to increase the budget, even if it adds a tax increase.

“We are understaffed, and that is not being handled appropriately right now. I think there are opportunities there that we could solve this very quickly, and have that risk reduced throughout our community, so we can deliver the service consistently to our citizens.”

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