The public use of Cariboo Regional District fire halls in communities that don’t have other places to gather is being discussed by local leaders, following concerns raised by affected residents.
The issue was originally raised by Area L Director Willow Macdonald, who oversees Lone Butte - Interlakes, at a board meeting in October when she said her constituents were upset to discover they were no longer allowed at the Deka Lake Volunteer fire hall.
Historically, members of that community had been able to use a room upstairs at the fire hall for gatherings and events, but, according to Macdonald, were recently told by the fire chief they were no longer allowed to use the space.
In addition to the Deka Lake hall, the 150 Mile and Wildwood fire halls also often doubled as community meeting spaces, according to directors.
At last week’s Committee of the Whole meeting, concerns about public safety, CRD liability, building code standards and “fractured communities” were discussed at length.
“This is an evolutionary issue,” CAO John MacLean said, noting that for many years before the fire halls became functions of the CRD, ladies auxiliaries and other “offshoots” would hold fundraisers in the halls.
“Now that these are a taxpayer service, the halls are fire halls. They’re not necessarily built or maintained to public occupancy standards. But if we did have a formal arrangement with rules and understandings, that’s the way forward.”
Macdonald agreed there should be protocols in place for members of the public using the fire hall spaces, but wondered where that left her constituents, while staff worked to address the matter.
“My communities are crumbling and fighting and they want access to their spaces. The fire chief shouldn’t have the final say,” she said. “I just want our communities to meet when they haven’t been able to do so. We should be strongly encouraging our fire chiefs to work with our community groups.”
Stuart Larson, manager of protective services, said the chiefs of the three halls in question had reached out with concerns that the issue had “become political” since residents in the communities had gone to the area directors on the matter.
“In each of these cases, the chiefs have called and expressed their concerns that now that we’re moving our fire halls in a more positive direction and actually adhering to legislation and liability and they’re cognizant of this, these chiefs are scared to have people in their buildings because they don’t want to be held accountable,” Larson explained.
CRD chair Margo Wagner, who is also director of Forest Grove-Canim Lake, said that for communities that don’t have other meeting spaces nearby, losing access to the fire halls is a “huge issue” that the CRD needs to work through sooner rather than later, especially for the Deka Lake community.
“I have so many emails not just from the ratepayers’ group but other members that live out there that are so concerned,” Wagner said, noting the process of formulating a policy would likely take until January. “During the winter is when a lot of these activities take place. Is there any way we could kind of give them a bye for four months?”
According to CRD manager of communications Chris Keam, Larson is in the early stages of reaching out to the fire chiefs at the halls in question to discuss options for the short term.
A motion to direct staff to draft a report outlining the conditions by which community groups might be allowed to use the halls was carried unanimously at last week’s meeting.
“The next step will be to ensure the motion’s wording is reflective of the board’s intent,” Keam said. “It will be reviewed and (potentially) approved as part of the Nov. 19 meeting minutes, at the next COW meeting in December. At this time we cannot say which CRD volunteer fire departments would be impacted, as the policy and criteria by which fire halls could be used for other activities would need to be established and approved before we could determine suitability of a hall.”