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Emergency response debate highlighted after truck driver spends three hours trapped in Yoho National Park

Field Fire and Rescue Department’s contract ended with Parks Canada on Sept. 30. Parks says it is working through recommendations of an independent report on providing long-term, sustainable solutions for emergency services in Yoho National Park.
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The community of Field B.C.'s emergency services hall. GOOGLE MAPS IMAGE

FIELD – A-truck driver was trapped in his vehicle for three hours after rolling his semi-trailer last weekend at a time Parks Canada continues to grapple with providing emergency services for the Trans-Canada Highway in Yoho National Park.

Field Fire and Rescue Department’s contract ended with Parks Canada on Sept. 30. As of Oct. 1, the local fire department is providing fire suppression services only to Yoho National Park and no longer taking calls for vehicle fires or motor vehicle collisions.

STARS Air Ambulance, Banff EMS, BC Ambulance and Golden-Field RCMP all responded to the scene of the semi-rollover west of Field in the early morning hours of Sunday (Oct. 4).

After 90 minutes from the initial call, Golden Fire Rescue also responded because no one could get the trapped driver out of the crashed semi-trailer.

“He was trapped in there for close to three hours,” said Mike Pecora, deputy fire chief for Golden Fire Rescue.

“It was big scene and nobody could get him out, so had we not gone, this fellow wouldn’t have gotten himself out of there.”

Based on earlier direction from the Town of Golden that Yoho National Park is outside of Golden Fire Rescue’s jurisdiction, Pecora said the department made an initial decision not to go to Sunday’s accident.

“After many, many calls through BC Ambulance and our dispatch, and several calls to our RCMP through our dispatch, I made the call to go,” he said, noting he was also getting personal calls from RCMP saying no one could extricate the driver.

“It took us 27 minutes to arrive on scene and I’d say at least another good half hour to get him out… it was a pretty big deal.”

STARS Air Ambulance was called to the scene. The nature of the driver’s injuries is unknown at this stage.

“We were dispatched at 1:07 a.m. early Sunday morning to Hwy 1 west of Field for a semi rollover,” said STARS spokesperson Fatima Khawaja.

“We rendezvoused with EMS on scene and assessed a male patient in his 50s. STARS did not transport the patient; he went by ground ambulance to hospital.”

Parks Canada is legally required to provide fire protection and road rescue services in Yoho National Park. 

For well over a year now, the 16-member volunteer Field Fire and Rescue has been negotiating with the federal agency for a stronger department, including a full-time paid fire chief. There have been five fire chiefs in as many years.

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

In April this year, the department agreed to extend its contract on a temporary basis until the end of September to give Parks Canada time to resolve the situation. However, the department did agree to provide fire suppression and limited road rescue services only.

Parks hired an independent contractor to do a third-party review of the fire department, but the draft report was not available until Sept. 28 – just two days before the fire department’s temporary contract was due to expire.

With nothing resolved as of Sept. 30, the department opted against renewing its contract for road rescue on Oct. 1, but decided to continue providing fire suppression service for Yoho National Park until the end of this month.

“We didn’t want to turn out backs on the community,” said Patrick Cais, the department’s acting fire chief. “We wanted to maintain fire suppression in Yoho National Park as an essential service.”

However, Cais said one of the main concerns was a lack of road rescue training, noting there was a period of time this year when derelict vehicles stored at Boulder Creek compound typically used for auto extrication training were no longer available.

“That was affecting the morale of the members and that is one of the concerns,” he said, noting members feel demoralized and unappreciated by Parks Canada.

“That is why at the end of September the members were not comfortable to extend the contract to go onto the highway.”

The fire department is a local non-profit society, which currently has 16 members, including four new recruits. 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. 

While Field has a population of 130 people, firefighters also serve millions of visitors to the national park every year, as well as all the traffic travelling on the national transportation corridor through the park, including commercial traffic. 

One senior member within the department has resigned due to the ongoing stressful situation with Parks Canada, with reports of the possibility of additional resignations if the situation is not resolved soon.

Generally, the fire chief spends about 300 hours per year and officers/members spend 250 hours per year on department duties. 

“Within the fire department, we have a big loss of interest with the members because of the situation we were in,” said Cais. 

Parks Canada officials say they are reviewing the draft review of Field Fire and Rescue Department by Kelowna-based Neilson Strategies, adding they met with the fire department to discuss the report on Oct. 8.

Alex Kolesch, a Parks Canada senior advisor for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay, said BC Ambulance, STARS air ambulance and Parks Canada visitor safety continue to respond to emergencies as required.

He said the federal agency is continuing to work with neighbouring jurisdictions such as Golden and Lake Louise on a sustainable solution for the provision of emergency services in Yoho National Park.

“The key piece for us is maintaining a level of emergency response and prioritizing public safety on the Trans-Canada Highway and everywhere in Yoho National Park,” he said.

“We’re going to continue to work with both Golden and Lake Louise to find some sustainable long-term solutions, and that may mean that Lake Louise is more of a factor into the future, but today, no.”

Kolesch said the independent consultant looked at how the Field fire department is structured and operated and provided a range of options.

He added that he could not publicly disclose any recommendations at this time because the report is in draft form.

“We want to find some short-term measures that will provide an appropriate level of emergency response as well as long-term measures,” he said. 

“We’re working as quickly as possible, but we have to look at the final report once we get it from the consultant. No decisions have been made.”

While Cais said he couldn’t yet speak to the report, the department remains at the discussion table.

“We will go through the audit and talk with Parks about what can be done and what can be the options,” he said.