Trail Mayor Mike Martin called it a million-dollar decision.
The city and five regional participants recently agreed to a three-term contract for a full time training officer in Kootenay Boundary Regional Fire Rescue.
The seventh vote and lone hold out was Coun. Lloyd McLellan from Rossland.
With the fire service eating up $511,000 or half the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary’s (RDKB) tax requisition this year, Alternate Director McLellan opposed the motion during the May 19 East End Services (EES) meeting.
The issue has a long and interesting history, says Rossland Mayor Kathy Moore.
“And this is not about the service itself, it’s about trying to be creative to meet our region’s needs without breaking the bank.”
She recalled the fire service review that Alpine City council initiated in 2013, in an effort to find cost savings and efficiencies in the regional department.
“The report came back recommending a number of expensive additions to our service,” she said. “I do not recall that there was even one cost saving idea.
“This to me, was preposterous. We have a terrific fire service, but the costs are getting unaffordable.”
Moore was referring to a report by David Mitchell and Associates, a B.C. company specializing in fire service analysis, released in 2014. After spending 17 days with the fire department the previous summer, the group outlined 39 final recommendations to the RDKB, including the hiring of a full time training officer.
“The position was recommended and that horse was out of the barn,” said Moore. “For the amount of money we are now spending on a training officer, a fair number of people could have attended courses at the Justice Institute or a trainer could have been brought out,” she added. “I realize this isn’t ideal, and maybe not feasible, but I don’t believe other alternatives were properly explored.”
She acknowledged the rationale brought forth to EES directors prior to the decision, but maintains the matter merited further scrutiny and discussion.
“I appreciate that Mike (Mayor Mike Martin) and Ted Pahl (Warfield Mayor) worked with the fire chief to create the business case, and I thank them for their work,” she said. “But I’m not satisfied there was enough critical thinking brought to bear on alternatives or enough recognition that this whole service is costing a lot money.”
Moore reiterated her council’s stance that cost saving opportunities must exist in light of the expert’s report, that she says lacked thoroughness.
“I would have like to seen some tradeoffs,” she explained. “If this position was the top priority, then perhaps savings should have been pursued from elsewhere.”
Regarding the Trail mayor’s statement of the job’s expense, Moore agreed, saying the decision to add a new permanent position will cost taxpayers a bundle over time.
“It is easy to bring on a new position but nearly impossible to do away with it once it is established,” she added. “There is a robust firefighters’ union after all.”
Moore noted a one-year trial period was discussed but the three-year term was considered a more realistic approach to attract applicants and determine the position’s efficacy.
“I can see the point, not many people would be willing to uproot themselves and possibly their family for a temporary assignment,” she said. “In terms of the job itself, I still think one year would be sufficient to see if the position has merit and if it can achieve a significant number of its objectives.”
This year, the RDKB’s requisition to East End participants increased about 3 per cent. Aside from Rossland’s half million apportionment to the fire service, Trail paid $1.4 million toward the service’s $3.25 million requisition.
Last year, a 3.5 per cent increase in regional district taxes meant Trail paid over $1.3 million, or almost 44 per cent of the $3.06 million fire service budget. Area B paid $302,000 to the fire service; Warfield, $139,600; Montrose, $90,600; Fruitvale $167,000 and Area A, $522,600.
Another cost component Moore questions is that all B.C. firefighters are paid to a general standard that is based on a Vancouver firefighter’s salary.
“It does not take into consideration the significant cost of living differences within our province,” she explained. “Just take a minute to contemplate Vancouver real estate prices with those in our area for instance. So, our professional firefighters are paid just about the same as the guys in the Lower Mainland. Ouch.”
The mayor also questioned the number of fire halls needed to cover the RDKB fire district territory.
“This may be taken as heresy but maybe we don’t actually need six fire halls to cover the area,” she explained. “Surely there could be savings found somewhere if that was the goal and mind set of the RDKB board. I think by working collaboratively with the fire service personnel we could have seen a different result.”
Other fire service recommendations included the need for a joint training centre, an increase in career staffing by one firefighter per shift and focus given to the recruitment and retention of paid on-call firefighters.
“The argument that a training officer is needed to improve recruitment and retention also sounds a bit hollow,” Moore concluded. “I think people are busy, they aren’t leaving the service for lack of training opportunities but more for lifestyle commitments and conflicts. It takes a tremendous amount of time to be a professional or paid on-call firefighter anyway you look at it. I would have like to have seen other models for training explored.”
Fire Chief Terry Martin said a training officer job description is currently being drawn up in the union, and the job will post internally to ascertain if any local career staff are interested in applying.
According to fire rescue’s business case, a new provincial directive for minimum structural firefighter training standards came into effect last fall.
Given the level of service KBRFR provides, which is Full Service Operations, the new regulations require a specific level of training called NFPA 1001 or Level 2.
The business case outlines the means to achieve the regulatory compliance training for a Full Service Operations fire department. The main component being the proposal to hire a dedicated training officer to develop and implement a service-wide training plan.