By Nikki Jamieson
When M.D. of Taber residents get a chance to sit and chat with their elected councillors, you bet there will be some pretty hot topics on the table — such as the newly launched M.D. fire service.
During the recent Municipal District of Taber council’s annual general meeting, councillors found themselves in the hot seat as residents quizzed them on the fire service.
Last year, controversy was sparked when the M.D. announced they would be terminating the current fire services agreement with the Town of Taber, giving the required one-year notice to the town and creating their own rural fire service in its place.
That fire service was launched officially on March 1, 2017, with the months before focussed on training, enlisting volunteer firefighters to serve in the Vauxhall, Hays, Enchant, Grassy Lake, Barnwell and M.D. Regional fire departments and setting up new M.D. fire halls in the Town of Taber and Barnwell.
One resident wanted to know where the costs for the fire service were listed in their auditor’s report.
All expenses that the fire service accumulated would be continued in the financial statement as a whole, with certain expenses falling under operational (about $1.75 million in 2016) or capital budgets.
Additionally the M.D. utilized $800,000 in grant funding that went towards the purchase of some equipment.
The M.D stressed that while the majority of their expenses went towards setting up the new fire hall, they also had four other departments to take care of.
However, council did say that when they did their preliminary budget, they weren’t planning on launching their own fire service.
“The preliminary budget was made in mid-November,” said Derrick Krizsan, CAO for the M.D. “The decision was made at the end of December, to move forward with the new initiative.”
Coun. Bob Wallace brought up a few of the expenses for the fire service during his report, as he serves as the chairman of the Regional Fire Authority in Vauxhall.
Calling it a “smooth” operation with the Town of Vauxhall, he said the M.D. had purchased a used black firetruck for $200,000, with an estimated worth of $400,000, saying for that amount of saving they’ll live with the colour.
They had also purchased a wildland unit for Enchant, Hays and Grassy Lake departments, and a rescue truck for the new M.D. fire hall.
They had grown from 60 volunteers to 80 volunteer firefighters across the municipality, and it costs $10,000 to properly equip each volunteer, and each volunteer had undergone additional training.
“I’d like to thank all the volunteers for taking the time out of their days to do that,” said Wallace.
He also paid a nod to EMS service that operates out of the Vauxhall fire department, saying four years ago, they had just seven volunteers and were at risk of losing the EMS service. Now, however, it is about 20 volunteers strong and is now a “very viable, full to the limit” volunteer service, saying it was good training for Alberta Health Services personnel.
Coun. Ben Elfring added that they even had two volunteers from the local Hutterite colonies join the fire service.
“I think this is very important for all of our Hutterite colonies. They have large populations, and to be trained properly, until the regular fire departments come out there to assist in their communities, I think it’s well done,” said Elfring. “There are more who want to come on, so I think it’s a feather in our hat.”
Reeve Brian Brewin also spoke on the Grassy Lake Fire Department. Up until September 2016, Grassy Lake was a part time service which could only be on call during the evenings and weekend, due to a shortage of volunteers that worked within the area during the daytime. However, an aggressive recruitment drive bumped up the number of volunteers at the department, and they gained numbers who were available to respond to daytime calls in the area.
“We went from a fire department in Grassy Lake that was, quite honestly struggling,” said Brewin. “We had half a dozen there — a good bunch of kids, but we didn’t have a daytime service, we didn’t have enough people there working locally. So daytime (calls were answered through the Taber (fire service).”
“One thing the regional service has, we got a few more people there, some who work in Grassy Lake, so we’ve now been able to offer the daytime service there. So if you’re in an accident south of Grassy, that could be the difference of half to a quarter of an hour for truck getting there.”
Acknowledging that while a lot of negative things had arisen, Brewin said there were also plenty of positive things happening to the small fire department, “that maybe, this was a wake up call to us.”
“A lot more work should have been done for these small, rural fire departments. We kind of took them for granted, certainly the Grassy Lake one. They were all volunteers, and I think farmers got together and built the building, I remember going around collecting money to buy the first truck. That was just the way it was done. And over the years, it’s morphed into what it is today; I think it was just time as a municipality, we stepped up, starting treating everyone the same, and I think the municipality has a better service because of it.”
A resident said he had been asked by people why the M.D. was doing what they were doing with the Regional Fire Service. Paying a nod toward Wallace’s letter to the editor, published in the April 13 edition of the Vauxhall Advance, he said he thought the letter had clarified a few things, answering that question for people.
Wallace’s letter had been in response to the ‘Mayor disappointed with Barnwell fire decision’ article published in the April 5 edition of the Taber Times. In the article, former Mayor Henk DeVlieger criticized the Village of Barnwell’s decision to cancel their fire agreement with the town, paying out the remaining year with the town and joining under the M.D. banner, calling the decision “unprofessional” and “a slap to the face”, and reiterating his belief that the M.D. acted in bad faith during their fire service negotiations.
Although the M.D. has long stood by its decision, saying it was a done deal, Wallace appeared to finally get fed up by the former mayor’s criticism of Barnwell over their decision. In his letter to the editor, Wallace blasted the former mayor’s statements, writing that he couldn’t allow his comments to go unchallenged, that Barnwell’s decision was a “natural extension of the familiar and friendly municipal relationship that we have developed over decades of trustful and honest dealings” and “When you have only two customers, one of whom already operates four fire departments in its municipality, it is not recommended that you tell them during negotiations ‘if you don’t like our fire service – start your own’ at least twice during the negotiation process”.
“It’s as factual and accurate as I could make it. And polite. It took a few drafts to get the polite,” said Coun. Bob Wallace, to the room’s amusement.