Firefighter Joel Anthony (left) helps fellow Saanich firefighter Josh Ward spray down his gear after extinguishing a house fire in the 500-block of Walter Avenue. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)

Mutual aid talks fizzle between Greater Victoria fire departments

Victoria puts other core departments on notice

The City of Victoria has given notice that it will pull out of a 1980 mutual aid agreement between the core fire departments as talks for an updated agreement have stalled.

In 2015, the city reached out to Oak Bay, Saanich and Esquimalt indicating the Victoria Fire Department wanted to work together to renew the old mutual aid agreement, which was already more than 30 years old at the time and promoted an “out-of-date response model,” explained Bill Eisenhauer, head of engagement for the City of Victoria.

At the end of August, five years after opening the discussion, Victoria served notice that it will no longer be participating in the 1980 agreement at the end of 120 days. This news came as a surprise to Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch, Saanich Mayor Fred Haynes and Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins.

The four core municipalities have been in discussions for years and “waiting for the City of Victoria to come to the table,” so this notice came out of the blue, Haynes said. He added it’s likely a mediator will need to step in.

While it wasn’t a move Saanich Fire Chief Mike Burgess was expecting, he said he was happy to see it. He’s optimistic talks will finally move forward now that Victoria has implemented a deadline.

He emphasized the four fire departments need a mutual aid agreement because they don’t individually have the staff to meet industry standards for firefighters required at large fires.

ALSO READ: Saanich, Oak Bay announce new five-year policing agreement to share resources, control costs

Through collaboration, joint training and aligned procedures, the departments can ensure their approach to fire service is modern and provides citizens with the best service, he said.

Murdoch feels it may be time for the municipal governments to get involved to discuss “the right next step” and make a new firefighting agreement a priority. It’s been five years, we can do better and the agreement has to be modernized, he said.

The matter was brought to Esquimalt council Monday with Desjardins voicing concerns about it would mean for residents’ safety. She noted it’s unfortunate Victoria would opt out when the repercussions are unclear.

Esquimalt Fire Chief Chris Jancowski noted the township has mutual aid agreements with other municipalities and the Canadian Forces, which are enacted more often. With notice from Victoria, he said there’s a little more urgency now but there aren’t any insurmountable issues delaying a new agreement.

Eisenhauer emphasized Victoria is looking forward to ongoing discussions but noted that the 1980 agreement “has resulted in the potential for disproportionate costs to be borne by the City of Victoria in the absence of reciprocity.” To manage said costs while still providing effective regional fire service, Victoria has proposed a cost recovery strategy for future firefighting mutual aid.

Burgess said Saanich would be open to a fee-for-service model but noted the data doesn’t support the concept that one municipality’s service will be disproportionate. Jancowski, however, doesn’t support a cost-based aid model because he feels “a good neighbour approach” requires give and take. He added that over time, the aid will balance out between municipalities while fees would create red tape.

Murdoch added that while many modern mutual aid agreements include fee-for-service, he’s worried it could create hesitation when calling on other departments for help.

In the meantime, Oak Bay Fire Chief Darren Hughes noted that regardless of an agreement, the public is safe and fire service will not be impacted. The goal is to maintain or improve fire service through a new agreement not reduce protection for citizens.

Bilateral aid agreements between the individual municipalities’ fire departments will not be impacted.


@devonscarlett
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devon.bidal@saanichnews.com

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