Hotelier fired up over fire department cuts

Penticton firefighters Jan Lamarche-Ledoux and Carsten Von Dein apply water to the smouldering rubble that was once Slack Alice’s.   - Mark Brett/Western News
Penticton firefighters Jan Lamarche-Ledoux and Carsten Von Dein apply water to the smouldering rubble that was once Slack Alice’s.
— image credit: Mark Brett/Western News

Mayor Garry Litke isn’t sure whether or not the city could accept a donation from the business community targeted at restoring the two firefighter positions that were cut in the city’s 2014 budget.

“I never say no to donations,” said Litke. “A donation is one thing, but a targeted fund would be something different.”

In the wake of the cuts to the fire department, David Prystay, general manager of the Lakeside Resort, said he would be willing to donate $5,000 annually to such a fund, and has encouraged other members of the Penticton business community to take a similar stand.

It’s Prystay’s way of raising awareness of the cuts to the fire department, which came during council’s budget deliberations before Christmas.

A former police officer, he said the firefighters need public support, as the cuts endanger not only property safety, but the safety of the firefighters themselves.

“It’s insanity as far as I am concerned,” said Prystay.

“I doubt most people in this town would leave the warmth and comfort of their homes to risk their lives. Rare breed they are, they need our support.”

“I have to rely on the opinion of the chief (Wayne Williams). The chief is responsible, like the manager of any of our other departments, to let us know if there is a safety issue,” said Litke.

“We have asked him repeatedly if there is a safety hazard for the community and he has said no, and he is able to operate with the staffing level we now have.”

Litke’s interpretation the Williams stand, said Mike Richards, president of Local 1399, International Association of Firefighters, is at odds with both Worksafe B.C. regulations and what Williams has passed on to the department.

“He knows darn well that 30 is not adequate, it just won’t maintain three on each engine 90 per cent of the time,” said Richards.

Regulations require at least four firefighters to be on scene before a two-man team can enter a burning building, and two more need to be on scene within 10 minutes or the first team has to retire.

With the former staffing level, two engines were manned with three firefighters each.

In the first six months of 2013, Richards said they were able to maintain the necessary levels 90 per cent of the time, but after two retiring firefighters weren’t replaced, that dropped to 53.5 per cent.

Litke said 30 firefighters is more than the city had two years ago, when staffing was raised to 32.

“This year, when a couple retired and the budget crunch coming down … the decision was made to not replace those,” said Litke.

“We got the expected response from the union, but the chief and the deputy chief met with us as late as last week and we asked them the specific question about whether they felt they could create a level of safety that fit within accepted standards.

“They had no problem with that. If the chief stood up and said I need two more guys to keep this community safe, it would be a whole different conversation.”

Williams, caught between being both a firefighter and a department manager, puts his position a little differently, saying that while they can manage with less, it is not the best choice.

“It is very tough for me. I can see how effective 32 firefighters have been over the last few years,” said Williams, who has been in the fire service for 33 years.

“I tried to give them as much information as I could to explain what happens with less firefighters, but it was a final council decision.”

Williams said it is going to be difficult for the department. Besides making it slower to get enough firefighters on scene, smaller crews are also more prone to injuries; rather than three on a ladder, there are two, or one person handling a hose rather than two.

“With us there is strength in numbers, the more people we can get to the scene faster, the faster we can take care of the incident,” he said.

“Can we manage? As long as we follow our Worksafe regulations.

“We just have to make sure that all of our staff follow the regulations and work within the Worksafe regulations and our operation guidelines.”


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