During their regular March 22 meeting, the Municipal District of Taber council met with a delegation of 13 volunteer Taber firefighters, who wanted to discuss the M.D.’s decision to create their own fire department.
“The decision to terminate the fire agreement was not something that was taken lightly,” said Brian Brewin, Reeve for the M.D. “(We were) partners with the town for a lot of years, and it worked well. Unfortunately, we are a municipality that is quite large, and we have small rural fire departments, that are struggling.”
The M.D. has a population of approximately 7,116 people who are spread out over 4,203.79 square kilometres. While 1,386 live in the five hamlets located within the M.D, there are still another 5,730 who are spread out throughout the region.
Excluding the town department, there is another four fire departments within the M.D, Hays, Enchant, Vauxhall and Grassy Lake after 5 p.m. The creation of a regional fire department would better support these smaller departments.
“We appreciate all of the firefighters, that have served the M.D. well over the years,” said Merrill Harris, M.D. councillor. “This isn’t a dispute about you or how you serve the M.D. and getting respect. We have the upmost respect for each of you, appreciation for your dedication and willingness to drop anything to head off to an emergency.”
Last year, Harris was part of the negotiating committee, with some Barnwell, M.D. and town residents, to come up with a fire agreement everybody liked. The current agreement was expiring at the end 2015.
The committee was chaired by the mayor of Barnwell, and had met four times throughout the year. However, it soon became clear that the M.D. and the town wanted different things in terms of the level of service, which impacted costs on things like equipment and labour.
The M.D. had submitted a proposal in September 2015, which was reviewed by the committee, and believed that they had reached an agreement with the town. In the proposal, were items such as the M.D. would pay a fire operating cost of $255,000, would provide several pieces of fire equipment such as several different fire trucks, at their own cost, for the department and highway revenue attributed to accidents, paid for by Alberta Transportation, would be split 58 and 42 per cent, in the town’s favour.
The committee approved the proposal, and it went back to both councils to review, ratify and approve. The M.D. had left the meeting believing that the town councillors on the committee were in favour of the proposal, and the town would approve it.
But while the M.D. approved it, the town did not, and sent back a letter dated Oct. 2, with a new proposal.
“We were informed by Oct. 2, 2015, from the mayor (Henk DeVlieger), that the town will not be returning to the negotiating table, and that the contract, which included terms and conditions not agreed to by the M.D. of Taber, would prevail,” said Harris. “It was stated that this is their final position. And just as you are disappointed by the letter we submitted to the town, saying we are going to terminate it, we were just as disappointed by the town’s response.”
In the letter, the town had outlined the new proposal, with the contract attached. The part Harris was referring to, in the letter, was in the second last paragraph, and read ‘We are not, however, interested in returning to the negotiating table at this time’. The M.D. received two more letters, offering to extend the current contract by a few months to allow the adoption of the town’s proposed contract. But, said Harris, there was no offer to renegotiate the agreement. This left them with two options; accept the contract or start their own fire service.
Council decided to do the latter, but authorized administration to accept the contract offer, provided they tender the one-year notice to terminate it on Feb. 29, 2016, and begin preparations for the new department.
“We left that meeting believing we had an agreement,” said Harris.
“So we can’t understand why the fire chief and administration turned down the offer presented by the M.D. and agreed to – we thought it was agreed to by the town councilors who were on that negotiating committee. And that’s where the decisions/rational came for the termination of the contract.”
The M.D. would provide their own equipment and incur all costs for this service, and due to the long life of equipment, will not be cost prohibitive.
“The recent comments by the fire chief, about the additional costs that the M.D. is going to incur, are only partially correct,” said Harris. “We are indeed going to incur a large capital expenditure to start this fire service. However, as was noted, we were already going to incur those costs regardless, as our September fire agreement to the town included purchase of all this equipment anyways.”
Speaking on behalf of the delegation, Clarence Bos, designated fire chaplain for the Taber fire department, thanked council for outlining the position on the matter. However, he and others in the department had some concerns, but wanted to be neutral in the matter.
“We’re not here representing the Town of Taber. We do not want to become embroiled in the politics of what is happening, we’re not telling you how to govern your municipality… I believe the issues go beyond economics. I also believe that the M.D. of Taber is not dissatisfied with the current level of service that we, as volunteers provide,” said Bos, in a prepared statement. “However, we feel like children, caught in a bitter dispute between parents who are having an agonizing divorce.”
While he can appreciate the M.D.’s position in negotiating disputes, Bos says that in this instance, the conflict is coming between communities and fire services are being used as leverage by both sides.
Having served with the department for 25 years, Bos has seen many political and internal battles, which just end up hurting the department. He has seen the “night and day” difference between inexperienced fire fighters and seasoned ones.
“I would concede, that if the trucks never roll, or you’re only responding to hay bales that are burning in an open field or a small grass fire, you don’t need a lot of training for that,” said Bos. “But what about responding to structure fires, vehicle fires carrying hazardous materials, train derailments, vehicle collisions with multiple patients requiring extrication… On any given day, we face thousands of different ‘What if?’ scenarios, that we need to be ready to respond to mentally, emotionally and competently.”
To give those members a minimal level of training and send them out like that is unethical, says Bos, and the job is dangerous enough without proper training. Also, volunteers should have the same level of training as their professional counterparts, according to Bos.
“We face the same hazards that they (professional firefighters) do. If the M.D. is satisfied with a lower level of training, what does that look like practically?”
A lower level of service is dangerous for all within the M.D, according to Bos. With children that are starting to drive and a wife who is an EMT, Bos is especially concerned with response times and levels of protection at the scene with the M.D. department.
In conclusion, Bos asked the M.D. and the town return to the negotiating table.
Brewin highlighted response times, saying they have to help departments in Enchant, Hays, Vauxhall and Grassy Lake.
“A response time to an accident in Grassy Lake, is just as important as one in Taber or Hays,” said Brewin. “In order to make sure that we have the volunteer firefighters in all our areas, and that’s really what this regional service is more about: how do we work together as a region.”
What they want to ensure, with the new service, is keep all departments strong, especially since they have a large area to take care of.
Captain Shawn St. Peter then spoke for the delegation, saying what the negotiations lacked was public consultation, which might have helped identify some issues. He also pointed out the town was hosting an open house yesterday, and asked the M.D. to come.
But according to council, they would not be making an appearance.
“We will not be attending the meeting,” said Brewin, adding he noted to Taber town council he would not be able to attend the meeting on that specific date, but Taber council proceeded with the date anyway. “There is three of us who are unable to make it, and yet again, no consultation with us and it carried on, so we’re not going to be there.”
St. Peter said while he understands the strain between the M.D. and the town, there is also a bit of a disconnect, of managing a volunteer service, as well. St. Peter added while there is a cost to running the service and for training, the budget is not a significant amount, leading to the volunteers wondering why managing the service is so challenging. They appreciate the M.D.’s support over the years, but want them to be able to better understand how they stay strong and how the money that comprises their budgets work. He added having a fire commission could help that.
“Pincher Creek has a fire commission, and it is made up, again, of public interest. It’s made up of M.D. councillors; it’s made up of town councillors. But it’s separately and independently run from the administration of both communities,” said St. Peter. “It gives that independent, consensus based approach to guiding the policies of the direction of the fire department.”
Another option could be to have a M.D. employee work within the Taber department, who could give different viewpoints.
“We’re just asking to go back to the negotiating table. Become diplomats and find an alternative solution. Creating a separate fire department isn’t in the best interest of anyone,” said St. Peter.
M.D. council proceeded to explain their side further, starting with the October letter.
“When we received the Oct. 2 letter from the town, we were in a little bit of a bind. We had a contract that was ending in December,” said Brewin. “So we had to make decisions, and we had to make them fairly quick… Consultation would have been good, time didn’t allow that. For what we had, we had to make some decisions fairly quick.”
They signed the agreement, and took the year opt-out in order to set up the new department. But that doesn’t mean they do not want to work with the Taber fire department anymore.
“We still hope to have mutual-aid agreements with the Town of Taber. Obviously, we’re going to have equipment, the town’s going to have equipment, and we certainly hope we can work together,” said Brewin.
The M.D. still hopes to call out Taber volunteers, especially if they have more experience. But they do need to train their other departments, with their 56 volunteers, and will continue to train, pointing out that people will always come and go from volunteer services.
“What we’re dealing with, is what’s best for our municipality as a whole,” said Brewin. “How do we get all our fire departments working together?
“The agreement between the town and the M.D, it’s not personal, it’s not anything else. We tried to come up with an agreement, at the end of the day, we agreed to disagree.”
In addition to supporting the fire departments, they need to ensure the continuity of them, to keep accountability and training on an even field.
In the over 100-year history of the Taber fire department, things have changed, and the M.D. add they had to help four other departments as well.
“Our decision is final. It didn’t come easy, it’s not something we made out of haste or anger,” said Brewin. “It’s a decision we made that we feel is best for our community as a whole.”
With the building rented, equipment coming and people already hired, the new service is almost a done deal. Appreciating their position, Bos then asked if the M.D. wanted to train their new volunteers, since they have more experience, although he was still concerned about a depleted volunteer base.
“We’re talking about lives here, potentially, right? Endangering the lives of people on the front lines and lives of the citizens we’re protecting,” said Bos. “It could have an effect.”
Council noted that was taken into consideration. However, some people have already expressed interest in join the department. While a lot of initial training is expected, they would have to rely on people who came from other departments in the beginning.
Over the years, the level of expectations has increased for fire departments. As a citizen of the M.D. of Taber, volunteer fire fighter John Andrae added he was interested in working collaboratively with the M.D. department, in case Taber needs extra support, and they should come forward with the offer.
“I get that it’s a done deal, but with those mutual agreements, I think it’s very important that you move on it quick, because right now, we don’t know where we stand,” said Andrae.
The level of expectations is why, according to Brewin, the M.D. is hiring someone full time to help fire chiefs out in these department so they won’t burn out.
Andrae also pointed out when he first started, things were quite different between Taber and other departments, they have been working more and more together. The bickering between council is not something they care about, but rather the fire departments work together. But recently, that hasn’t been happening.
“I hope as partners, we can move forward and work together, because I think we can be bigger (department) than you – no offence – but I think we can be bigger then you, I hope we are.”
Marten DeVlieger, an M.D. resident, inquired about highway accidents. He wanted to know who responds to calls on the highway.
“The whole thing that concerns me is – and I could be wrong – if you split the two, you get half, and there was a comment made by a councillor that they’re over trained,” said DeVlieger. “My wife gets in an accident on that side of the highway… Are we going to accept just minimal training? And what if there’s six or seven people in an accident, now what? Can you guys guarantee M.D. citizens, that the service will be the same?”
The comment DeVlieger referred to was made in an March 9 article in the Taber Times, when the mayor was quoted saying the M.D. councillor “Mr. Bob Wallace always brought up that we over-train our volunteers to too high of a standard, and that we were inefficient.”
M.D. council was quick to say they want to train their volunteers to a high standard, pointing out they pay for a lot of the training that the volunteer delegates had received.
“It was very much taken out of context, and you find the spot where it says I made that comment, it was taken out of context,” said Wallace.
“They (all departments) will be getting the same training. One person is in charge of training our entire region now,” said Brewin. “We had a proposal where one department was taking 50 per cent of our budget over the other four, so we had some tough decisions to make. How do we even this out and make sure that, for lack of better terminology, all the wheels of the wagon are getting greased.”
“Mutual aid, we just have to keep that in mind, mutual aid agreements have to be (signed),” said Deucharme. “If you’re waiting 15-20 minutes for somebody to respond, it’s already in the golden hour, and if they get on scene 20 minutes down the road, then holler, ‘We need some help.’ You need to get this together as soon as possible.”
Volunteer firefighters do the job out of the goodness of their heart, he says, but while training is good to have and keep up, you need the experience as well.
The meeting ended with Brewin reiterating they would not be attending last night’s meeting with the town, but is open to talking to the town. But, Brewin warned, the department is a done deal.
“That is being by choice, not to get this through the paper and argue this through the paper. I don’t think this is the proper venue to be doing this. If you need to sit down and talk, then call me,” said Brewin. “Let’s have this conversation.”