Playing With Fire

(This 2011 special report was shortlisted for an investigative journalism award in the community newspaper category by Canadian Association of Journalists) 

By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: Sept 2011

During the Great Fire of Rome, they say, the powerful Roman emperor Nero played the lyre, watching contently as the city he ruled burnt down to ashes. 

It would be extravagant to talk of Nero and his Rome while talking of Squamish and its council. 

Perhaps. 

An expert audit report ignored by he council shows the community needs to ask some serious questions on fire safety and thinking that goes into decision-making behind the closed doors of the District of Squamish. 

A fire audit was completed in Squamish by Fire Underwriters Survey (FUS), a national organisation that represents more than 85 per cent of the private sector and casualty insurers in Canada. FUS reports are regarded as an authority by both the fire services and insurance industries. They have a dual purpose: To provide insurance companies information to base their premiums on and to advise municipalities on the deficiencies in their fire departments and recommend improvements. 

Commissioned in 2006, and presented to the council in January 2009, the FUS audit made one red-inked “critical” recommendation to the council: Improve staffing levels at the fire department.

 The audit found Squamish Fire Rescue deficient in its staffing.

 “The Squamish Fire Department is 82 per cent deficient with regard to available fire forces, the most significant deficiency within the fire insurance grading,” said the report. It also warned that the insurance premiums in the community might go up if more fire fighters were not added to the Squamish Fire Rescue.

 “If the staffing level of the Squamish Fire Rescue department remains at the same level, the fire insurance grading of the community will be negatively affected,” said the report. 

Now, say, you had this report and you had the power to change things, what would you want to do? Hire a few fire fighters so that the community is safe and insurance rates don’t go up for the constituents?

 Guess what happened in Squamish? The exact opposite.

 Six months later, as if in defiance of the report of the fire survey, the District of Squamish decided to lay off one fire fighter position in May 2009. So why did the council decide to get rid of one fire fighter position, especially after a “critical” recommendation by a nonpartisan fire audit to hire more fire fighters?

 “CAO’s recommendation,” was Mayor Greg Gardner’s answer.

 Coun. Corinne Lonsdale, too, laid the responsibility with former CAO Kim Anema, saying the council doesn’t “dream up” recommendations.

“He’s the guy we pay the big bucks to come to us with recommendations, to research, to know, and so that’s what he came to us with and we accepted it,” she said.

 Anema charged he had to make the decision under duress since it was strongly demanded by the council that he brought forward a 4 per cent reduction in budgets. Anema also said he was away in Edmonton when the council decided the position would be cut.

 “Mayor and Council, wholly of their own accord enacted the 4 per cent tax reduction, including the elimination of the fire fighter position,” Anema claimed in an email. “I was shocked but their deed was done, completely independent of my participation. Cuts that yielded a 4 per cent reduction in taxes were DEMANDED.”

 Even if Anema indeed favoured the layoff, doesn’t the final decision to accept a staff suggestion rest with the council? Coun. Lonsdale agreed, saying the position was cut by the council after much deliberation. She did not, however, expand on what discussions preceded such a serious decision.

 Curiously, she said the council decided to accept the cuts because the fire chief didn’t oppose them.

“We didn’t accept it blindly, but it seemed at least that the fire chief of the day didn’t say something at that time. He was in front of us too and he didn’t dispute it,” she said. But former fire chief Ray Saurette strongly denied he ever recommended the cuts.

”At no point did I recommend that a fire fighter be laid off or a position eliminated,” Saurette said.

He said he was hoping to speak on the cut during the budget process, but the opportunity was never provided. He said he was concerned about the recommendation, since the fire audit had asked the council to hire more people, not to lay them off.

Squamish councillors might be able to pass the buck to the officials on the layoff, but they can’t play ping-pong on one fact: Squamish has exactly the same number of fire fighters today as it had in 1992.

In 1992, there was a fire chief, a deputy fire chief and four career fire fighters, working with about 60 valiant volunteers. An additional fire fighter was hired in 2001, but it was the same position that was eliminated in 2009, bringing the number of fire fighters to the same level as 1992.

Even though the number of fire fighters pas stayed the same, the population has increased. Since 1992, the Squamish population has expanded to 18,000 from 12,000. New developments have mushroomed all over the town, from Quest University to Garibaldi Village, from condos to townhouses. As would be expected with the increase in population and construction of more buildings, the call volume to the fire department also increased. In 1992, the fire department responded to roughly 257 calls; in 2009, the number was 535.

The pool of this town’s committed volunteers is also shrinking: The number of volunteers has gone down from 60 to 43, according to information provided by the current fire chief, Tom Easterbrook, although he said a fall recruitment was planned.

When asked if more than a year later, the layoff of the fire fighter affected the department in any possible way, Easterbrook said he was watching. “Well, let’s just say that I’m waiting and seeing and working on it. I’m keeping an eye on things and I’m working on it. That’s all I can say at this time.” he said.

A few days later, he admitted that with the population increase and development that Squamish had seen over the past few years, it won’t be long before Squamish would need more fire fighters:

“We will undergo a core review, and we will look at long-term staffing patterns soon,” he said.

Coun. Lonsdale said she would have to dig up the exact number for the volunteer fire fighters, but insisted that the Squamish Fire Rescue was doing a good job of protecting Squamish citizens.

“I don’t know the exact numbers but we have ample, we have a lot of volunteers, may be its close to 60, but I’m not sure,” she said.

The community, which includes scores of valiant volunteers, who give their time and endanger their lives, should know this: Since the past 18 years, the call volume has doubled; the population has increased by 50 per cent; development, too, has nearly doubled over this time – and the fire department still stands exactly where it was in term of numbers!

According to the National Fire Protection Association, an international not-for-profit organisation with headquarters in Massachusetts, U.S., ideal response time to a fire is four to six minutes. Michael Hurley of the British Columbia Professional Fire Fighter Association said a fire response longer than six minutes wasn’t a very effective response.

”After the first five minutes, a burning fire doubles every 30 seconds,” Hurley said, succinctly underscoring the need for rapid-fire response.

An increase in response time has been a matter of concern for Squamish Fire Department, according to its own 2007 report available on the District of Squamish website.

The Squamish Fire Rescue’s average response time was seven minutes and 30 seconds in 2007. In 2009, it increased to 10 minutes. “It was around 10 minutes and because we respond outside Squamish, the average time can get a little bit high,” Easterbrook said.

But didn’t fire department respond to calls outside Squamish in 2007 when the response time was less?

After a few days of the initial interview, Easterbrook called back to say ten minutes was a rough estimate. He said that 10 minutes was the number of minutes it would take for the volunteer fire fighters to come on the scene.

The response time for the professional fire fighters was lower, he said. The response times, he also added, were a very complex issue that needed a detailed study.

But Coun. Lonsdale assured that there was no cause to worry about response times.

“I think our response times are good today as they were a year before that and the year before that. We are doing fine that way,” she said.

She also said the average response time can seem high because the Squamish Fire Rescue had to answer calls on Highway 99 and to the communities of Britannia Beach and Furry Creek, which also increased the average response times.

However, the fire department responded to calls on Highway 99 and outside communities even in 2007. So what led to the response time increase by three-and-a-half minutes, an eternity if your house is burning ? Other councilors didn’t seem as enthusiastic to talk about the issue. Coun. Bryan Raiser said he knew that the layoff was a result of the “budget recommendation by the fire chief”.

An automated response came from Coun. Rob Kirkham saying he was away on vacation, while Coun. Lalli said he wasn’t available for the time the interviews were conducted. Coun. Patricia Heintzman said that Squamish had a really strong volunteer fire fighter force, who were trained enough to handle fire-safety issues.

Coun. Doug Race suggested talking to the mayor, who sent a one-line response before flying to China. “Fire department is functioning very well,” wrote Mayor Greg Gardner. The fire chief seemed to downplay the very importance of the audit itself. He said it was just one indicator of how well the fire department was.

“It’s useful tool, but it’s not something that you use to build the fire department around. It was never meant to be the definitive guide to build the fire department,” he said.

Michael Currie won’t be surprised. Currie, one of the directors of FUS, said municipalities most often shy away from investing in their fire department. Since an investment in fire department means an increase in taxes, it can be an unpopular decision which politicians don’t want to implement.

 “It’s simply because of politics. When I speak to municipalities, they will say if we invest in fire department, our fire grading will increase and that’s going to improve the rates, but what’s that going to do for the municipalities? They say you are not doing anything for us,” he said. 

He said most Canadians believe there’s some common public standard that operates for fire and water services, but that’s not the case.

“There’s no standard level. It depends on what level of fire protection and water services they need to supply. It’s determined by the choice of local municipalities,” he said.

If it all boils down to a matter of choice, then it’s fair to ask: If the District of Squamish can hire new people, pay hundreds of thousand towards SSC debt, pay half-a-million dollars to buy a restaurant, choose to go on a China trip, and give the staff handsome raises, can it not hire a fire fighter?

Or perhaps, in this case, the questions should be: Was it necessary to get rid of a fire fighter right after a survey screamed at the top of its voice to hire more fire fighters?

Get an answer. Or you could be talking of Squamish and Rome in the same breath.