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Stalemate over road rescue in Field continues

Parks Canada plans to create an in-house emergency services position to relieve administrative burden from Field fire department
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The community of Field B.C.'s emergency services hall. GOOGLE MAPS IMAGE

FIELD, B.C. – Parks Canada plans to establish an emergency services position to oversee the Field fire department, but demoralized firefighters are holding out for a full-time paid fire chief.

The federal agency told Field Fire and Rescue it prefers the option recommended by an independent consultant for Parks to create its own centralized emergency services position to guide and oversee the department.

“This will relieve the majority of the administrative burden on the department, allowing members to focus solely on training and response,” said spokesperson Lesley Matheson.

“This was a key concern raised by the department and a contributing factor in no community member taking on the duties of volunteer fire chief.” 

Kelowna-based consultants Neilson Strategies came up with four options, including the fire department’s preferred option for an in-house, full-time paid fire chief position instead of the existing on-call volunteer position to lead the busy fire department. 

While the fire department supports the idea of a Parks Canada emergency services position as a good first step, it still wants a full-time paid fire chief position.

“It is great to have this administrative support from Parks, and it’s going to help us significantly,” said acting fire chief Patrick Cais. 

“But we need to have somebody who can take the incident command role as well and have leadership within the department – that’s what’s also missing.”

Parks Canada and Field Fire and Rescue have been in a deadlock in contract negotiations for many months, with the fire department opting out of providing road rescue services, but continuing with fire suppression for Yoho National Park.

The fire department is dealing with a growing number of emergency calls on the Trans-Canada Highway with increasing visitation, as well as a greater burden of liability, time demands and administrative requirements to operate a fire department.

Two recent serious accidents on the highway west of Field resulted in men trapped inside their trucks for several hours,  pointing to the urgency of having this issue resolved sooner rather than later.

On Oct. 27, two semi-trailers crashed west of Field, leaving a 63-year-old man seriously injured and trapped inside his vehicle for about two hours. He was later flown by STARS air ambulance to Calgary’s Foothills Hospital.

Previously, on Oct. 4. a driver whose semi-trailer rolled west of Field was trapped inside his truck for three to three-and-half-hours. Golden Fire-Rescue responded to both accidents.

Golden’s mayor, however, says it is unsustainable for Golden to do the job of Parks Canada, which is responsible for responding to structural fires, motor vehicle accidents and chemical spills in Yoho National Park.

At its annual general meeting on Tuesday (Oct. 27), Field Fire and Rescue agreed to extend its contract for fire suppression until the end of March 2021, but the department won’t go to vehicle accidents.

No-one at the meeting stepped forward to take on the job of fire chief, but Cais later agreed to continue on as acting fire chief in the interim not wanting to let down the department or community.

“We don’t feel comfortable going back onto the highway because it’s heading for failure for us,” said Cais, noting the department has to take a stand for the long-term viability of the department and its volunteer firefighters. “All members were in favour of that.”

Matheson said Parks Canada is committed to providing emergency services in Yoho National Park, noting public safety is of the utmost importance.

“A community of about 130 residents may not be able to sustain a volunteer fire department in the same way it has in the past,” she said.

“Parks Canada understands this and is working to find other solutions for the provision of emergency services.”

Field Recreation Advisory Association is also calling on Parks Canada to agree to a full-time paid fire chief, noting the position has been particularly difficult to fill on a long-term basis with three different fire chiefs in the last five years. 

“There is no one in the department who feels they can take on the role and give it the attention and commitment it requires,” said Kathryn Cameron, the association’s president in a letter sent to Parks Canada last week.

“The responsibilities of the fire chief position are daunting, and more challenging than can be reasonably requested from a volunteer paid on-call fire chief, who also has a full-time job with another employer, family and friends and their own personal interests in life.”

The advisory council called the existing model for the fire department “unrealistic and unsustainable,” and urged Parks Canada to build a new model that provides operational leadership from within the department.

“A Field-based, full-time fire chief would be able to respond during daytime calls to ensure experienced leadership needed to make appropriate decisions,” Cameron said. 

Meanwhile, Matheson said Parks Canada will continue to work with neighbouring jurisdictions to provide sustainable road rescue services for this area.

She said BC Ambulance, STARS air ambulance and Parks Canada visitor safety continue to respond to emergencies as required. “In some cases, Golden Fire Department will also respond,” she said.

In 2019, the department responded to 57 calls in Yoho, and 33 of those were for road related incidents such as vehicle accidents, or vehicle fires.