Fire chief wants to explore amalgamation

John Gleeson/Staff Writer / Staff writer
February 21, 2014 01:00 AM

The Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD) should consider amalgamating its fire departments into one regional department, Roberts Creek fire chief Rob Michael told SCRD directors last week.

With increasing time demands on volunteer members, the move would allow departments to better share resources such as equipment, vehicles and staffing, "instead of duplicating efforts up and down the Coast," Michael told the infrastructure services committee on Feb. 13.

"The requirements of the fire department nowadays for training and expectations are going higher and higher, and I feel that it's time to start looking at a regional department where we can cooperate a little more," he said.

In his annual report for 2013, Michael acknowledged the idea of amalgamation had been raised in the past, but said it was time for the board to reconsider it in light of the level of training and responsibility required from chief officers.

West Howe Sound director Lee Turnbull said when the idea had been explored in recent years, "what we encountered was the real huge problem that what we have is volunteers," who want to serve in their own communities.

As a result, Turnbull said, the SCRD was "cautioned by all our fire chiefs not to proceed." Since then, she added, departments have been more focused on collaborating in areas such as training and radio equipment.

Michael said the departments had made some headway in collaborating and "have a great working relationship," but "are still somewhat divided." A single training officer and fire chief, he said, could help streamline administration and provide consistent direction.

"It wouldn't come without its challenges. I just see that as being the next logical step," Michael said.

While a shared training officer might be worth considering, "I don't see it with chiefs," Turnbull said. "From my point of view, it's very important to have chiefs locally, and volunteers report to that chief."

Egmont/Pender Harbour director Frank Mauro raised similar concerns.

"Volunteer fire departments are inherently volunteers from their own communities. Tinkering with that is really muddying the waters. You're going into uncharted territory," he told Michael.

Asked if other fire chiefs support the idea, Michael said discussions between the chiefs have been "pretty informal" so far.

"We've had some casual conversations. There are some ideas onboard, but it still has a long way to go before it's a reality," he said.

"It's up to them to have a more in-depth discussion," added committee chair Donna Shugar, who had asked Michael to speak about his recommendation as "information to consider."

"As a board we don't want to discourage discussion," Area B alternate director Brian Smith added. "We would want to know about the operational advantages and whatever financial implications as well."

Four of the six fire departments on the Coast fall under the SCRD's umbrella -Gibsons, Roberts Creek, Halfmoon Bay and Egmont -while the Sechelt and Pender Harbour departments operate independently.

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