The Revelstoke City Council debate on an ongoing fire department review was hosed down before it could overheat at their Aug. 27 regular meeting.
The first of a series of planned department reviews went sideways right away, barely gaining a majority to make it to the table.
The 26 recommendations for the city’s fire department were outlined by Davis Consulting group in early July, and covered then in this Times Review story.
Advocates of the plan wanted to adopt six of the 26 recommendations. They included establishing service levels, cancelling structure fire calls outside city limits, opening discussions with the CSRD on fire inspections, a 40-person volunteer squad, and training level targets.
But Coun. Gary Starling led a critique of the plan, gaining verbal support from other councillors at a council table increasingly prone to open debate and split votes.
Starling’s chief concern was provincial downloading of services, saying the fire department is responding to more and more medical calls, making up for an often short-staffed ambulance service.
The effect is Revelstoke taxpayers are covering for a provincial service.
At the meeting, and in a subsequent interview with the Times Review, Starling said Revelstoke Fire Protection Services were complicit on the effort; with structure fire rates plummeting across the country due to improved fire codes, fire departments are actively seeking new work, moving into medical assists and new rescues.
“The medical calls far outweigh anything else,” Starling said of Revelstoke statistics.
The result, said Starling, is we’re sending expensive trucks manned with highly-paid staff carrying the wrong equipment to cover medical calls – saying the incident can be as little as a fender bender.
“At some point you have to draw a line,” Starling said, adding if it was up to him, he was prepared to give the BC Ambulance Service notice with a date, and simply stop providing medical calls.
“I would like to see us get a better collective agreement with the fire department locally,” Starling said. He said contract negotiation rules means the firefighters’ union representatives are assured of a great deal if they take negotiations to arbitration, so the only way out is to explore a different service model.
Starling said entitlement to overtime was ingrained in the firehall culture and needed to be curbed.
He was upset that some firefighters interviewed with the consultants while on overtime, saying it was counterproductive.
Coun. Starling also criticized the consultants’ report, noting errors. He said the report failed to identify issues like the existing 24-hour shift system as an issue. In a month, firefighters work two, 24-hour shifts the first three weeks, then one 24-hour shift the remaining week. When calls come in, they’re more likely overtime calls at the always-staffed fire hall.
Coun. Phil Welock ran for council in 2008 on a law-and-order agenda and has overseen fire and police services for council since then. He also presided over the fire department’s expansion into medical calls and has supported major equipment purchases, such as their new aerial platform truck.
“I’ll tell you what, when I call 911 I want someone at my door as soon as possible,” Welock told the Times Review in an interview after the council meeting. “I don’t mind our firefighters helping our paramedic crew.”
He noted council had already made minor scale-backs to the medical responder program after it was introduced for a trial period.
Welock downplayed the controversy, saying the report was on the table, and council needed more time to work through it.
He noted errors as well; Welock said the report “misprinted” a protocol that called for five firefighters to respond to minor traffic incidents in town. “That was something that slipped through the cracks.”
Coun. Welock said he was opposed to raising a commotion about ambulance service in town. We’re lucky to have a new station with two ambulances. Having intermittent coverage issues when ambulances are responding to calls on the Trans-Canada is a fact of life.
Coun. Welock parried another of Coun. Starling’s issues: that during emergencies, fire trucks were waiting at the hall until career firefighters arrived, even thought a full truck with some volunteers was ready to go in some instances.
If your house was burning down, who would you want there? Welock asked. A seasoned veteran, or a rookie?
Back at chambers, city councillors opted to step away from the heat, tabling the debate for now.
The controversy poses a challenge for the mayor and the city administration. The independent review of the fire department was the first of a series of departmental reviews planned for the coming years. Having an outsider probe at Revelstoke institutions has touched off controversy, to say the least.
“What I am hearing is we have little faith in the work done by the independent consultant … which is a very awkward position,” noted Mayor David Raven. He cautioned council not to “throw away the money.”