Williams Lake city council continues to debate whether the fire department should respond to motor vehicle incidents.
Over the last five years the fire department has attended MVIs, along with the RCMP and BC Ambulance, costing slightly over $10,000 a year for the calls.
Some council members have raised concerns over the number of personnel attending accidents, especially when a fire doesn’t result.
Mayor Kerry Cook and councillors Ivan Bonnell and Surinderpal Rathor view responding to MVIs as an increased level of service that was never authorized by the council of the day.
Fire chief Randy Isfeld told council during its committee of the whole meeting Tuesday, the fire department only responds to MVIs within the fire protection area; other fire departments will be called in if an accident takes place outside that area.
“If it’s not a fire, why is the fire department being called in when it wasn’t being called in before?” Bonnell asked.
Isfeld said the fire department always responded to MVIs; however, normally they arrived after the fact.
After several incidents — one in particular where the fire department was called in after a vehicle burst into flames after the people were pulled from it — the RCMP and BC Ambulance asked why the fire department had not responded earlier, Isfeld explained.
“I sought advice on it at that time and was told that it was within our mandate that we should be doing this based on our bylaw. It didn’t seem necessary to go to council,” Isfeld said.
Explaining the differences, Isfeld told council the fire department is not a “first responder” per se. A first responder responds to health issues, such as heart attacks.
Probably 99 per cent of the fire departments in the country respond to motor vehicle incidents, emergency accidents and fires, he added.
“We respond for the protection of citizens, but we also respond for the protection of the emergency responders on scene.”
There isn’t the ability within 911 to make a full determination of what the scene is and Isfeld admitted sometimes they’ll respond and turn back once they realize they aren’t required.
Some of the costs incurred are due to the number of people responding to call-outs. The fire department maintains a call-out staff of 40 and may have as many as 23 people showing up.
“One of the ways we can reduce that cost is by platooning where you have a select group of people — say 15 — and only those 15 are allowed to respond and from that you would get the necessary eight to 10 people that you would need to respond to an MVI,” Isfeld suggested as a way to reduce costs by at least a third.
There are drawbacks for platooning because if the department is divided up that way, some members might lose interest, but Isfeld agreed that in most cases 23 people aren’t needed at an MVI.
“However, it’s my personal opinion that this is a function that we should be providing,” Isfeld said.
Coun. Geoff Bourdon said council has to decide if the fire department should be responding to MVIs and if so then council and the city can look at ways to cut costs.
Coun. Sue Zacharias said she would like the fire department to be called after an assessment of the scene by the RCMP and ambulance.
“I would think in the day of cellphones you can get a hold of people quite quickly,” Zacharias said. “When the RCMP and ambulance go to an MVI they must, within the first five minutes, be able to assess the situation as grave or if there’s imperative danger to people at the accident scene.”
She argued that the RCMP and ambulance attendants are well trained in securing the scene and determining if the fire department should attend.
“There’s no way to determine if a vehicle is going to catch on fire, whether that hybrid vehicle has shorted out or whether a vehicle is going to move or not. The RCMP and ambulance attend for the people in the accident; we attend for the vehicle and the scene.”
In a report to council, Isfeld included letters from the RCMP and BC Ambulance that supported the fire department responding to MVIs.
Coun. Laurie Walters told Isfeld she is in favour of the fire department attending MVIs because it’s about safety and saving lives.
“To me it’s a no brainer that you’re working together and helping each other out. I definitely don’t want to see us go back.”
Rathor, however, noted his concern about it being an increased level of service without consultation with council.
“Council should have to do due diligence. It is a budgetary item and should be referred to staff and then more discussion with council. If we go ahead, I have no problem with that. You have done a good job, but I would humbly ask that you cut back the costs in the meantime,” he told Isfeld.
Cook said she would only support continuing with the service if there is a better system in place that sees less fire department members attending MVIs.
At the end of the meeting, council deferred making a decision until it receives further information from the fire department. Bonnell also requested further information on the frequency of inspections by the fire department and the service agreement bylaws and heard those reports will also be presented in the future.