Education placed on the back burner

Staffing changes at Penticton Fire Department create uncertainty over future of programs

Kali Simpson receives a special chief’s helmet from Penticton Fire Chief Wayne Williams in 2010 while mom Hope Simpson watches. The girl’s actions were credited with having a broken smoke detector in their home replaced just in time to avoid a potentially serious fire.

The status of the Penticton Fire Department’s prevention and educations programs for 2012 remain up in the air.

While Fire Chief Wayne Williams maintains work in this area will continue, there is a very strong likelihood it will at least be cut back.

The main reason is the loss of the dispatcher positions at the department and the replacement of current operations assistant Liz Wilson, who for the most part developed and ran the programs for the past nine years.

As of Dec. 31, emergency calls will be handled by Kelowna fire dispatch, while Wilson is being replaced through a seniority clause in the union contract.

A decision was made by the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen in June to award the $1.8 million contract to Kelowna.

According to the chief, the loss of the positions — because those employees did other work in addition to dispatching calls — will mean a change in the role of the operations assistant.

“It’s very unfortunate what’s happened but it’s beyond our control,” said Williams.  “As of Jan. 1 it’s going to be a little bit different, but we don’t know how different it’s going to be.

“In the beginning there will be more clerical work (for the operations assistant) but we do not want the fire safety program to be eliminated, we may have to scale down the extent of what we’re doing which we don’t want to do.”

In the past Wilson had been free most days to take the prevention and education messages out to schools, seniors’ centres and elsewhere because other staff (dispatchers) were available to take calls and look after the counter, which will no longer be the case in the new year.

Williams is asking city council to include in the 2012 budget funding for a master plan for the department which would include provisions for education.

“It is very hard to put a value on that because it’s hard to say we didn’t have a house fire and people didn’t die because of this but there is no question that is the case,” he said. “It is just something that is very hard to measure.”

Although he did cite one instance of positive proof of the program’s value involving an eight-year-old girl who attended one of Wilson’s sessions and came home and insisted her mother check the smoke alarms.

As it turned out, one of the alarms in the duplex was not working and the landlord replaced it.

The same day while the girl and her mother were out, the upstairs neighbours heard the alarm go off and the fire department was eventually called.

As it turned out, a space heater had malfunctioned causing an electrical fire which firefighters were able to quickly extinguish.

“We responded and managed to put the fire out before it did too much damage,” said Williams.  “So that fire did not spread, and if that alarm did not work the fire could have got a hold on the building and who knows what would have happened to the unit next to it that had people in it. How do you put a value on that?”

He pointed to two other valuable programs, one  involving juvenile fire starters and the second targeting people between the ages of 18 and 40.


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