Coming off of their busiest year so far, the Port Alberni Fire Department is looking to replace some aging equipment in the next five years.
Port Alberni fire chief Mike Owens was in council chambers on Wednesday, Dec. 4 for the second of three committee of the whole meetings. Council will hear from each of the city’s departments as they go over their draft 2020-2024 budget.
Owens explained that 2018 was the PAFD’s busiest year, as the department responded to more than 1,600 calls. So far in 2019, the department has responded to more than 1,450 calls. Compared against all of the departments that North Island 911 dispatches—including all Island departments north of Nanaimo, as well as Fort St. John—Port Alberni is the second busiest department.
More than half of these calls are usually medical first responder calls.
Owens told council on Wednesday that one of the biggest issues that the department faces is a lack of personnel. When responding to larger structures—such as schools, hospitals and industrial plants—departments require a minimum of 28 suppression staff. Port Alberni only has 22.
“I’m not sitting here asking you for staffing today,” said Owens. “I think there’s an opportunity to further develop our regional partnerships with Sproat Lake, Beaver Creek and Cherry Creek.”
Another issue is the department’s “aging fleet” and equipment. The city’s draft budget for 2020 includes $995,000 in capital costs for the fire department, part of which will allow for the replacement of one pumper truck. The department is also planning to replace the fire prevention officer’s vehicle with a hybrid vehicle, using their appearance on “Hellfire Heroes” as leverage to purchase it at a lesser cost. There is “a bit of demand,” Owens explained, for brand recognition on television.
But one of Owens’ biggest concerns isn’t included in the 2020-2024 budget. He told council on Wednesday about an ongoing issue with the department’s self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), where regulators “freeze open” and start free-flowing air. Standard operating procedure when this happens, said Owens, is to grab your partner and exit the building immediately.
“What that does is it stops whatever progress you were making,” he said.
There has also been at least one instance where a firefighter ran out of air while inside of a structure.
After an incident investigation, the SCBAs were sent back to the manufacturer and overhauled. But although the manufacturer has “high confidence” that there will not be a repeat of the issue, a root cause of the problem was never determined.
“This really rattled the confidence of the firefighters,” said Owens. “Obviously the crews are still skittish, especially as we start to head back into colder weather again.”
The SCBAs were purchased in 2013, replacing another brand of SCBAs at a lower cost. There was “a lot of controversy” around this purchase at the time, said Councillor Cindy Solda. They are scheduled to be replaced in 2028, but if a further issue arises, this might be moved up. A replacement would cost around $180,000, including the sale of current units.
“I’m not asking for a decision,” said Owens on Wednesday. “But it is something that should be on your radar.”
Gaylene Thorogood, manager of police services, was also in council chambers on Wednesday to present the RCMP’s budget. Policing makes up the largest percentage of the city’s budget.
The city plans to develop a public safety building in the Uptown area in 2020, which will house bylaw services and community policing services. A sum of $150,000 has been set aside in the draft capital plan to create the building, while $120,000 has been included in the operating budget in 2020 and subsequent years for operating expenses. All expenses will be drawn from the city’s policing reserve fund, so it should not affect taxation.
The final departmental budget presentations will take place tonight (Dec. 5) at council chambers at 6 p.m. Sessions are also livestreamed and budget presentations will be uploaded to the City of Port Alberni’s website at www.portalberni.ca/budget the day after the presentation is made public.