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Fire department report 'shelved'

Mike W. Bryant
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Mar 31/06) - Firefighters are angry at the mayor’s insistence that improvements are underway at the fire department, says their union president.

NNSL Photo/graphic

Firefighter Craig Halifax chokes back tears at a memorial held for fellow firefighters Lieut. Cyril Fyfe and Kevin Olson, March 17. He says it doesn’t seem like City Hall has done much to address safety issues since the two men died a year ago. - Chris Woodall/NNSL photo

Lieut. Craig Halifax, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters local 2890, said as far as he is concerned, a 2002 audit of the fire department that Mayor Gord Van Tighem referred to in Monday’s News/North was shelved and forgotten by City Hall officials.

The review by consulting firm Morrison Hershfield was completed in October 2002.

Van Tighem used the review as evidence that City Hall has been steadily working to improve conditions at the fire hall. Department safety and operating procedures have been questioned since the deaths of firefighters Cyril Fyfe and Kevin Olson in March 2005.

Early this month, the city, along with fire chief Mick Beauchamp and deputy chief Darcy Hernblad, were charged by the Workers’ Compensation Board for failing to ensure safety and proper training in relation to the men’s deaths.

Other than an increase in staff, however, Halifax said he believes City Hall has done little else since the 2002 report was completed.

“I’m not saying anyone is a liar or anything, but that report, from our standpoint, has basically been shelved,” said Halifax.

“(Van Tighem’s comments) made it sound that there was extensive work being done towards achieving that report, which really isn’t the case.”

Halifax offered a lengthy list of problem areas, including insufficient staffing, a lack of training resources, and the city’s emergency dispatch system.

The Morrison Hershfield report originated as an operational review of the city’s fire department.

While the report found that the department was providing an adequate emergency response, it also showed that the department was under-staffed and dispatch services were lacking for a city this size.

Firefighters were initially buoyed to read the report’s recommendations, but calls for change continue to fall on deaf ears, according Halifax.

Had the union not stepped in when the 2003 budget was being adopted, Halifax said the report’s recommendation to add more staff would’ve been thrown out and nothing would’ve been accomplished.

City council eventually approved the hiring of four full-time firefighters to bring the total complement to 20, far short of the recommended 28, or seven per shift.

Halifax said fire hall shifts today often have to make do with three when people are on vacation or home sick.

While most fire divisions across the country demand entry-level firefighters be trained up to standards set out by the National Fire Protection Association, Halifax said that’s not the case in Yellowknife.

Some firefighters have waited years for management to make time or bring in instructors to upgrade their credentials. Halifax said seven firefighters - a third of the department - are under-qualified.

“A number of our guys have gone to the fire school in Alberta on their own because the courses are cancelled or delayed,” said Halifax.

“A lot guys just want to get that done. They’ve been on the department for three, four, five years now and their training still hasn’t been done through the department. They say, ‘that’s enough, I’ll go do it myself.’”

After the deaths of Fyfe and Olson last year, firefighters wrote up a report, complete with recommendations, but Halifax said staff have been left with the impression that city administration preferred to wait for the WCB report before addressing firefighters safety and training complaints.

In late February, the WCB handed the city 12 safety orders. One included the creation of a safety officer position at the fire hall.

Another called for an independent evaluation of gaps in fire hall training practices. The city was given five months to complete them.

“Out of those orders, eight or nine of those were discussed in that (fire hall) report,” said Halifax.

Some city councillors recall the original Morrison Hershfield report being submitted to them, and voting for the four additional firefighters, but not if anything has been done since.

“I haven’t dug into it,” said Coun. Dave McCann. “It was an important issue, but one of a number of issues we deal with.”

Earlier this week, the mayor said council will be discussing changes to the city’s Emergency Response and Protection bylaw very soon.

That’s listed in council’s goals and objectives, and was one of seven recommendations in the 2002 report slated for the short term.

McCann said he is unaware that the revised bylaw is coming forward.

“I’m drawing a blank,” said McCann. “(The mayor) controls the agenda. You have to remember that.”

Van Tighem said he understands Halifax has concerns, but said he anticipates problems will be handled quickly now.

“With the number of reports and orders, etc., that have come forward supporting the direction of the initial (2002) report, things should accelerate from this point onward,” said Van Tighem.

“Observably, not a lot has happened because you haven’t hit the results of the legislation, but practically there has been quite a bit of work put into it. It’s not a fast process.”

Halifax said at least the city is finally talking about making changes - belated or not.

“If that report is being used again, especially by the city, well that’s great. But... that was released in October of 2002.