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Penticton firefighters understaffed and facing burnout: Union

The department currently has 36 staff on the payroll, out of a minimum goal of 40
The historic Warren House on Lakeshore Drive became engulfed in flames and quickly was destroyed by fire on March 7. The Penticton Fire Department has to respond quickly to fires like this one, as well as medical calls, motor vehicle incidents and a range of other emergencies that wear on the firefighters. (Monique Tamminga - Western News)

As Penticton heads into a municipal election season, the rhetoric on public safety has begun, but it is missing a key aspect; the local fire department.

Speaking to the head of the Penticton firefighters union, Curtis Gibbons said the need for additional firefighters is dire and is only likely to get worse.

“We need better funding, and we need it sooner than later because it’s wearing on the guys and they’re burning out,” said Gibbons.

Gibbons a 14-year veteran of the department, is the president of the Penticton branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Penticton’s not the first community to raise this issue. A letter from a retired Kelowna firefighter was distributed to the city and media in April calling out how the department was brutally understaffed when it came to fighting a high-rise fire.

One of the key funding needs is in raw staffing for the department. Currently, the department crews its vehicles with three firefighters per engine.

The staffing situation is one that Fire Chief Larry Watkinson is aware of and he agrees with the union that there needs to be more firefighters hired. He admitted that the growth of the department hasn’t been as fast as the union would like. With the current city council, for example, he said that they were willing to accept his pitch to bring on one additional firefighter a year.

“I can sympathize with the union. Honestly, they’ve had a tough go and were behind years before I came in and I think now that we have a council that listens to us and trusts their chief to make good tactical decisions on staffing not just because empire building,” said Watkinson. “We’re moving forward and it’s just a matter of getting to an area where the community can politically and financially absorb it.”

With three firefighters to an engine, when crews arrived on the scene of a structure fire they can’t immediately enter the building until a second engine arrives in order to provide enough members for a safe response.

The department currently has funding for 36 staff, with 37 going into 2023 for the time being. That still leaves the department shy of the 40 minimum that would meet what is considered the national standard.

“We have to have a two-vehicle response to have enough firefighters on scene to make entry, should we need to fight the fire from inside or to rescue any people that are trapped,” said Gibbons. “When the fire’s in the middle of the city, not such a bad thing when both stations are converging, but when it’s not in the middle, that poses a challenge.”

Penticton is also slated to have more high rises built in the near future.

“A first alarm response to a fire in a highrise, that’s seven stories and above, the first call is for 43 firefighters,” said Gibbons. “There’s a massive jump because of the number of critical tasks that need to be completed in the first few minutes of the fire.”

The department is already set to get a second ladder truck in 2023 in order to meet the equipment requirements for the growing number of highrises in the community.

Watkinson pointed to the department’s ability to call in and call back career firefighters, as well as auxiliary resources, to provide more bodies in the case of such rare and more complicated fires.

Beyond tactical response, one the biggest issues that Gibbons pointed to for the burn-out facing the department is the number of medical calls the department goes out to.

The department had already cut down previously on which calls they responded to, limiting them only to the highest importance of BC Ambulance codes and to calls where there was more than a 10-minute delay for an ambulance.

“It dropped our call volume by about 1,000 calls and last year we increased our call volume by 1,000,” said Gibbons. “I think that’s part and parcel to what everybody is seeing and experiencing with the opioid crisis, coupled with the homelessness issue we’ve got here in town.”

While the fire department can’t do anything to remedy the staffing issues that affect BC Emergency Health Services, or the number of overdoses on the street, the number of staffing is one that Gibbons sees as something that can be tackled. He hopes that by making it known, the public will be able to get the city to provide more funding than for just one new staff member a year at the department.

At the end of the day, Watkinson pointed to the willingness of the mayor and council, and the taxpayers who elect them, as the ones who hold the key to the department’s staffing situation.

“A new firefighter [full-time equivalent] equates to about a 0.5 per cent tax rate increase, so when you think about a 2.5 per cent tax increase, and we’re one of the largest budgets in the city I’m mindful of that.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever get to a perfect world with the taxation potential for the community.”

READ MORE: ‘Brutally understaffed’ to combat high-rise blazes: Retired Kelowna firefighter

READ MORE: Still a ladder to climb on Kelowna fire staffing: Chief

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Brennan Phillips

About the Author: Brennan Phillips

Brennan was raised in the Okanagan and is thankful every day that he gets to live and work in one of the most beautiful places in Canada.
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