If he becomes half the fire chief Randy Isfeld was, Williams Lake’s new fire chief Des Webster said he’ll be OK.
“For the last few months he’s been mentoring me in how to take the transition as fire chief. He’s been a great guy to work for, I can’t say enough,” Webster said of longtime former Fire Chief Randy Isfeld, who retired earlier this year. “He will be sorely missed not just by me, but everybody. He was a firefighter’s chief.”
Isfeld is the reason Webster got into firefighting.
“When I first started as a volunteer it didn’t take me too long to realize this is what I wanted for a career,” he said.
At the time he was working for public works and also as a paid-on-call firefighter. He visited Isfeld and asked what he thought the future of the fire department would be.
Webster learned the position of fire inspector would be opening up because Isfeld was doing it as well as being the fire training officer and it had become too much work.
“I went out and qualified myself over the next two years and sure enough when the job came up I was able to apply.”
Isfeld mentored Webster from that day on — first as fire inspector, then as deputy chief.
As he eases into the chief’s role, Webster said there will always be challenges around budgets. That won’t change.
“The department will look for ways to generate revenue through fee service,” he said.” A lot of the stuff we do is not considered to be the regular service we provide to the city. Many departments charge for the things that we’ve been doing for free.”
One of those would be recuperating costs for responding to a Hazmat call by whoever the transporter was. Responding to Hazmat spills is not considered a normal part of the service the department provides, it’s an added service, Webster said.
For five years the Williams Lake fire department has had a functional Hazmat team.
“It’s important because there is a lot of industry in the city and a lot of rail and road transport coming through with many types of hazardous material,” Webster said. “Some of it is bad stuff and we decided years ago we needed to put ourselves in a position to deal with it. If we didn’t the closest team was going to have to come from either Prince George or Kamloops to help mitigate a spill.”
Everyone in the department is trained to one or two levels of Hazmat training which ensures if the fire department is called to a scene a full crew can respond.
Williams Lake has also made a request to the province to be a regional Hazmat team so it can be deployed outside the area if need be. “Again that would be on a fee-for-service basis.”
Had the agreement been in place in January 2013 when the transport truck overturned on Highway 97 at Wildwood spilling hazardous material used in mine blasting applications, Williams Lake could have been called out by the province to assist.
With Webster moving into the chief’s spot, Rob Warnock, already the training officer, is deputy chief and Joan Flaspohler is fire inspector.
Normally the department has three full-time firefighters and 40 paid-on-call firefighters. Right now there are 37 so at the beginning of 2014 they will hire four more paid-on-call.
Webster said they’ve been lucky over the last few years and managed to get several good new recruits to pick from and all have turned out to be good firefighters.
There has been a trend of fewer people expressing interest because the time commitment is “huge.”
“People don’t realize that when they come to a meeting. People think we’re a paid-on call department and that it’s come to a call and come to a practice, but it’s more.”
In 2013, he anticipates the department will respond to 400 calls, plus practice nights, meetings and training.
Last year they had just under 300 calls. “We’re at 250 this year already. That’s everything. False alarms, MVIs, grass fires, that’s every call.”
When it comes to rating arson in Williams Lake, Webster chose “minor.” There’s the odd fire that’s suspicious, but it’s not very common, he said.
Tragic fires can have an impact so firefighters can have access to grief counsellors if they need.
“They will come in and do debriefs for the guys. We’ve done that a few times through my career, but for the most part we talk among ourselves and keep checking on everyone within the department.” And there are signs to look for to ensure someone isn’t experiencing critical stress days or weeks after the incident.
Assessing health concerns is always part of the routine as well.
“We don’t go anywhere near a building without breathing apparatus,” Webster explained.
B.C. Ambulance will attend every fire — to attend to any occupants and to attend to the firefighters.
After two air bottles, a firefighter has to be checked by an ambulance attendant. “They check your vitals. If it’s really hot out, then after one air bottle, you get checked out.”
“The persona of the macho ‘I don’t need to go see the ambulance I’m good’ days are gone, you go whether you’re told to go or it’s your turn.”