The fire at Halo Sawmill in Pitt Meadows on New Year’s Eve underlined the need for more full-time firefighters in the city, said Coun. Bill Dingwall.
But his council colleague Bruce Bell said the cost to taxpayers would be high, and would have to be justified.
Dingwall predicts fire service levels will be a talking point during the coming election year.
At 9 p.m. on Dec. 31, firefighters were called to the mill on Fraser Dyke Road, where there was a fire inside a wall.
The fire was put out before major damage was done. However, the response from the paid on-call volunteers was not great, according to assistant fire chief Brad Perrie, and firefighters from Maple Ridge’s Hall 3 on 203rd Street were called to assist.
The two cities have a mutual-aid agreement.
That prompted Dingwall to renew his call for increased fire service in the city, as he posted on the Facebook page Protecting Pitt Meadows:
“I raised my concerns around public safety/health, and the need to invest in fire. Less than three weeks later, the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows News reported a fire at the mill in Pitt Meadows and “the response from the paid on-call department was not great.”
“I have a lot of respect for our volunteer firefighters, but it is time to have a community conversation around the service delivery model.”
Dingwall clarified that he would like to see firefighters attending a wider range of medical emergencies than they do now, such as those where ambulances are delayed, or chest-pain calls. He said the cost would be $25,000 to $50,000 per year.
“It’s very little [cost] to attend more serious calls and increase public safety,” he said. “That would be a very positive first step.”
Then, over the next four to six years, he would like to see the city add two full-time firefighters. It currently employs a fire chief, two assistant chiefs and two fire safety technicians on a full-time basis, and they cover weekdays. Dingwall said they should also be working weekends.
With two full-time firefighters at the hall, they would only need to have two volunteers arrive before a crew of four could leave in a truck, and that would assist with response times, said Dingwall.
He said there would be other benefits, like better attraction and retention of firefighters, and an increased level of skill and experience at the fire hall.
Dingwall said he has tried to have council review fire service, but council has affirmed its support for the present model.
“It’ll have to be a future council,” he said, adding he sees fire service levels as a major election issue.
He allows it will be expensive, but said the city is adding revenue. The second phase of the Golden Ears Business Park expansion will bring an estimated $1 million in new tax revenue to the city.
“You can do a lot in the community with that money.”
Coun. Bruce Bell said the fire department, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2016, would likely need to add a lot of full-time firefighters before there would be a crew waiting at the hall to respond on the night of New Year’s Eve. Hiring a pair of new firefighters would not create that scenario, he said.
“Two more guys just wouldn’t cut it.”
He served on the fire department as a volunteer for 10 years during the 1980s, and said weekdays at noon was identified as a period of vulnerability, because many volunteers are at their work commitments. In the evenings, more are available for a quick response. So having career firefighters on duty afternoons covers a time when volunteer response could be diminished.
Bell asserts council should not make any decisions based on one fire.
“It’s a bit of an exception on New Year’s Eve,” he said.
He would consider a broad statistical analysis as opposed to “one fire, where we had a poor turnout, on a holiday night.”
Bell said ensuring the best coverage on holiday evenings may be done through mutual-aid agreements, as full-time firefighters are on duty in both Maple Ridge and Port Coquitlam.
Through Pitt Meadows’ agreement with Maple Ridge, it received fire service and will be reimbursed by Pitt Meadows for the Dec. 31 fire.
There has been no business case presented to council that advocated going beyond the present paid on-call model, and a fire service review and Fire Chief Don Jolley have advised council the present system provides good public service, Bell noted.
The city is also looking at building a new fire hall, which would cost about $10 million.