Volunteer Vision: August 2014
By Vince MacKenzie
Fire departments all have jurisdictions – areas that we cover and in which we provide protective services.
By Vince MacKenzie
Fire departments all have jurisdictions – areas that we cover and in which we provide protective services. Sometime, in the evolution of your department, resources were acquired, people were trained, policies were established, and your boundaries were set up to protect a specified area. In most cases, that area is a municipality, and your response is typically set up around your municipal boundaries.
Unlike communities that have mutual-aid agreements, I write here about areas without any fire protection at all, that call on neighbours to respond to emergencies, without agreements or contracts in place.
In areas of Newfoundland and Labrador, and some other provinces, it is a given – you call, we come, even from outside municipal boundaries. But it seems as if more councils are directing their departments not to respond to outside calls. A recent situation in my province has brought this issue to the surface.
The incident involved a department that refused to respond to a call from a local service district that does not pay for service, nor does the homeowner. Council had advised the fire chief to not respond to these areas – which, in my view, is the correct decision – and the fire chief complied, as required. The homeowner complained to the CBC, which reported the story but failed to provide necessary details, and Newfoundlanders were left wondering why the bad firefighters didn’t respond.
Without an official directive from council, the decision whether to respond rests with the chief fire officer and can be morally disturbing, especially when few details about the call are available. Not responding places the department and the municipality under public scrutiny when the media report that the fire department refused to respond, even though the decision may have been sound to ensure protection of the municipality’s own taxpayers.
In the past, volunteer departments would respond to emergencies just about anywhere – most times without question or consequence. This response was typically praised as a moral obligation to help a neighbour. But things are changing, for several reasons.
First, the provision of fire service is an expensive venture; it is a municipal or district service for which taxpayers or subscribers pay the bills. But for many reasons, fire fighting is one of those services that, traditionally, has been shared when the emergency call comes in from someone needing help from an outside area where there are no firefighting resources. Rarely, years ago, would a bill be sent to the property owner. Perhaps having the word volunteer attached to our service implies everything is free. Would a municipality take the same view with the provision of garbage collection for free in another area? Secondly, as resources become limited, sometimes making adequate in-town response difficult, fire departments and councils are forced to take a hard look at their capabilities. Municipalities are directing their fire departments to be prudent, particularly if an outside response reduces the protection level within their own boundaries.
Finally, although there are many areas of the country that have become accustomed to free fire service on the good graces of their neighbouring communities, these practices are being questioned by municipalities’ insurance companies, which underwrite fire-department liability. If providing services outside a jurisdiction results in exposing a community and its fire department to greater legal liabilities while having diminished service, then this issue must be addressed by local governments.
Surely this is another good argument for the regionalization of fire services, a system under which all stakeholders can pay their collective shares and input resources to provide better services. While regionalization seems logical, in some cases, fire departments are simply forced to say no and not respond outside of their boundaries.
Another issue recently arose in Nova Scotia, where a fire department was forced to set a deadline to cease service to a district outside its boundaries due to non-payment of fees. The fee-for-service agreement had been established decades ago.
It is critically important for councils to provide clear policy direction to their fire departments, and, more importantly, to communicate those policies to the public. Fire departments must remember that their obligation is to their own citizens first, and that sometimes, as difficult as it is, we are not able to save the world.
Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Service and a director of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince