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'A hazardous situation' — Hantsport firefighters plead case with West Hants councillors for new station

Firefighters are concerned for their safety due to the cramped quarters at the Hantsport Fire Department. They're looking for council's help in building a new facility in the near future.
Firefighters are concerned for their safety due to the cramped quarters at the Hantsport Fire Department. They're looking for council's help in building a new facility in the near future. - Submitted

WEST HANTS, N.S. — Although not a request for West Hants' upcoming 2018/19 budget, the municipality will soon have to deal with replacing Hantsport's aging and cramped fire hall.

Referred to as a safety hazard during the municipality's budget discussions, longtime Hantsport Deputy Fire Chief Paul Maynard apprised council of the situation at the fire hall. He said that they need to begin planning for its replacement.

“Our initial thoughts were maybe we can do a renovation and save some money but it's really not feasible to do a renovation on the current site,” said Maynard.

But that's not the only fire services issue that needs addressing. In the near future, Mount Uniacke's volunteer fire department wants to discuss fire boundaries with Brooklyn so that they can better plan training and equipment purchases, and Southwest Hants Fire Society would like to see how they could become a stand alone service.

Representatives from Walton, Mount Uniacke, Summerville, Hantsport (station 1 and 2) and Brooklyn (station 1 and 2) fire departments presented to West Hants council their budgets and overviews April 3. The following are the highlights from the meeting. As West Hants' budget has not yet been passed, all figures are estimates.

Walton

Walton Fire Chief Danny Patterson told council they have upwards of 25 members and three juniors. Last year, Walton Fire responded to 46 calls, 26 of which were medical. The calls were not broken between East and West Hants territories.

“We are finding that we are running into more calls other than medicals,” Patterson told council. “In that respect, for this year, we're looking at expanding our training a lot to cover ice rescue, water rescue and moving into more vehicle extrication training and expanding on our knowledge of what we do.”

Walton Fire's budget is paid for by two municipalities: West Hants and East Hants.

Walton is the only fire department serving West Hants that does not provide its members with any honorariums.

“All of our funding goes to operations,” Patterson said.

The Walton Fire Department fundraises, on average, $30,000 annually by holding events like bake sales, penny auctions and a yearly chase the ace.

Mount Uniacke

Mount Uniacke Fire Chief Todd Swinamer said while only seven per cent of their budget is paid for by West Hants, he still appreciates the chance to speak to councillors at budget time.

Swinamer said they have 37 members; 33 are trained medical first responders, 35 are level 1 firefighters and two are working towards level 1 certification. They also have two junior members.

“Our department is not structured (the same) as others,” said Swinamer, referring to which members are qualified to drive fire trucks.

“We took a slightly different approach. We don't know who is going to be in the area at any one time so most of them have class 3 drivers licenses,” he said.

They had 224 calls last year in East and West Hants. The majority of calls were medical in nature (125), followed by motor vehicle accidents (36). They had four structure fires.

The 2018-19 budget request is the same as 2017-18: $33,432.

Swinamer said there are two subjects that he’d like to discuss further with council at a later date. He said he would like to see the fire boundaries reviewed as they share a border with Brooklyn.

“When districts were set up at that time, it was who was the quickest one to get to a particular point and the chiefs sort of agreed on what that line was,” said Swinamer.

Further, he’d like to see a long term agreement in place with the municipality that would help them plan to better address the Forest Lakes development near Cameron Lake.

“Our typical fire area now is single dwelling residential. We can do those with our eyes closed,” said Swinamer. “But once you start getting into larger structures (like the buildings planned for the resort) and larger type areas, I need to plan for that so I need your assistance to help with how that's going to work out.”

He said they are looking to replace their 308 truck in four or five years' time and may customize that next truck if they will be involved with caring for the golf resort.

“We may tailor that decision around how that truck will be put together... on whether Forest Lakes is part of that or not.”

Council also asked Mount Uniacke about honorariums.

They don’t provide them, but they do reimburse members for expenditures, like travel to the station for calls and training.

When asked how much that would equate to yearly per member, the chief said “$500 wouldn’t be too far off.”

“There's nobody doing this for any kind of money, that's for sure,” he added.

They employ two trained firefighters, who look after hall and equipment maintenance and also respond to emergency calls. They're paid close to $20 per hour for 40 hours per week. Swinamer said they provide Mount Uniacke with a quick response time during daytime hours.

Summerville

Summerville Fire Chief Chris Spencer told council he tried his best to hold the budget to the same amount as last year, but it was a challenge.

While he found places to cut, other aspects chewed up those savings.

“I'd like to make mention of our insurance. You'll note that there's a considerable increase over the 2017/18 budget that we had forecast. That's with respect to carrying the additional $5 million liability coverage,” Spencer said, adding the coverage is — or will soon be — a prerequisite for members of West Hants' fire service.

They also need to re-drill their well, which is estimated to cost between $5,000-$6,000.

“We are currently in a bit of a crisis in regards to our well,” he said. “We know we will be setting up and re-drilling our well as soon as the roads open.”

They pared back several areas, including shaving off $2,000 in fuel costs, nearly $5,000 from equipment purchasing (which would include things like hoses, ladders and other fire suppression equipment), and $5,000 from the training budget.

And while the Summerville Fire Department prepares to celebrate 55 years of service this year, they're not asking for any additional funds to help put on their banquet.

Like the previous year, he said Summerville is requesting $258,000.

Chief administrative officer Martin Laycock said he's spoken to various fire chiefs about the insurance issue.

“I think that is a low-hanging fruit; something to centralize from a municipal point of view that perhaps we will look at to get a more competitive price. I can't promise that we will but perhaps that's an opportunity,” he said.

The Summerville Fire Department has a membership of about 30 firefighters, and they have three junior members at present.

Council asked the chief to explain how they pay out honorariums, as it was a common question throughout the evening. Members get, on average, $300-$400 in honorariums annually.

“I've been told that Summerville has a rather strict policy in regards to its honorariums,” said Spencer.

“If a member in Summerville's stats dip below 35 per cent in calls or training, they run the risk of forfeiture of the entire honorarium so they receive nothing,” he said.

As for paid staff, Spencer said they have a custodian who works about 10-15 hours weekly. She’s paid a dollar more than minimum wage and is not a firefighter.

The chief said Summerville averages about 60 per cent medical calls to 40 per cent fire calls and responded to just shy of 100 calls in the last fiscal year.

They fundraise about $20,000 annually through such events as their monthly fish suppers, an annual spring auction, lottery and hall rentals.

Hantsport

Hantsport's budget was overshadowed by the need for a new fire hall.

Deputy Fire Chief Paul Maynard presented a report to council, explaining the hall's history and describing what conditions are like at the present time.

The fire department was formed in 1906 and operated out of the town hall with one bay until 1961, when a new station was built with four bays.

“This was built primarily by volunteer members with no municipal funding,” said Maynard.

Several additions were added to the hall over the decades that followed.

As firefighting equipment and apparatus evolved, the building couldn't keep up. As such, Maynard said they've been in a tough spot for a number of years.

“We're simply building trucks to fit in our station versus building trucks to suit our needs,” said Maynard.

The long-time officer said the issues have been mounting and now there's a safety concern.

“There's not a lot of room in our fire station for stalls, for firefighters to get their bunker gear on to get on the truck. Lots of safety issues there,” said Maynard.

Contaminated hoses and equipment are stored in the same room as their SCBA filling room, he said.

Another issue is that the fire radio operator cannot see any of the vehicles or station bay doors, plus the radio room is not accessible. There are no board rooms or offices, and a lot of the fire department's records are stored in members' homes.

“Members cannot access washroom facilities or refill their SCBAs when there's an event at our fire station,” Maynard continued, as the sole bathrooms are located inside the community hall.

Aside from a very small lounge area, which consists of a couch and a couple of chairs, the members — and mutual aid firefighters who visit — have no place to relax.

“In terms of morale, recruitment, and retention of members, short of emergencies, training and meetings, really, we don't have a facility that can support any other activities to engage firefighters. There's no real social room, no gym, there's nothing there to keep the members around,” he said.

As for mutual aid, they have to request special trucks to cover them off in times of emergency.

“When we call for mutual aid coverage, they have to send certain trucks because many of the trucks from our neighbours don't fit in our fire station,” Maynard said.

The cramped quarters has made for many close calls.

“It's like backing into a cave during the day because you just can't see at all. And, it's tight. There's literally inches on both sides of the apparatus,” said Maynard, noting minor incidents add up and can affect the longevity of the equipment.

As it stands, firefighters are putting their turnout gear on mere inches from the emergency trucks.

“There's so little space, members are leaning up against the trucks to put on their gear. It really is a hazardous situation for us,” he said.

An architect was hired to review the existing structure to see if they should renovate or build anew and he noted similar safety issues. His recommendation was to rebuild in a different location.

Part of the problem with the existing site is that one-eighth of the fire hall spills over onto the property of an adjacent landowner. There's also a lack of parking, and since investigating what it would take to renovate the existing site, Maynard said they discovered much of the land that they use for parking is not owned by the fire hall either.

“The existing site, if you take out all the land that we don't own that we thought we owned, we have about 24,000 square feet and the minimum size we require to accommodate a building is 55,000 square feet,” said Maynard.

Their kitchen, which was frequently rented out for use by community groups, failed inspection and council heard it would require thousands of dollars in repairs.

After a thorough review of the options, Maynard said building new is the best choice.

“We know that this isn't going to happen overnight but we really need a plan developed to replace our fire station,” said Maynard.

Council asked where else in Hantsport they could locate a fire station. Peter Johnston, the fire chief, said the Public Works shop on Chittick Avenue may be an ideal spot.

Coun. Jennifer Daniels asked if they could consider combining the Public Works Department and the Hantsport Fire Department into one building since both structures are failing.

“Might this be an opportunity where it could be a combined building... to make it more efficient?” she asked.

The CAO replied: “Anything is possible and it's at council's discretion what the possibilities are.”

Members of the Hantsport Fire Department have been raising various issues to council for several years, and it was known when the new West Hants fire service was being created that a new station was likely going to be needed within a few years.

As for membership, Station 1 averages 38 to 40 members and doesn't have any junior members at present. Station 2, which is located in Vaughan, has 10 members and one junior member.

Only a few questions were asked of the Hantsport Fire Department, with Coun. Tanya Leopold asking about the paid janitorial position.

Until recently, they had a firefighter employed three days a week at Station 1 and one day a week at Station 2. The janitorial budget line shows $15,000.

As for honorariums, the amount doled out depends on rank. Officers receive more than firefighters. The total budget for honorariums for 2018-19 is $40,000 for Station 1 and $8,000 for Station 2.

When it came to discussing Station 2, Alicia Wile and Dave Peters, members of the Southwest Hants Fire Society, joined the chief before council.

Peters, the SWHFS chairman, said he'd like to see more research on how the substation in Vaughan could become a stand alone entity.

“We would like to know just so as we plod along into the future that we're not doing something that in two years' time we're going to have to come back and renovate because we've got another truck or whatever,” said Peters. He asked if the CAO could look into the matter for them.

Both Peters and Wile said the group fundraises extensively to help offset the costs associated with running the site.

“We do a lot of fundraising, we do a lot of things that we don't ask council for and what we do get from council, we appreciate. We've been making it do for the last three years,” said Peters, noting they added $11,000 worth of gravel to the location last year, which didn't come from the municipality's coffers.

As well, they provide the building to West Hants without charging rent.

The building “was bought and paid for by the community out there. There's no rent or leases or anything like that. That's donated so we can store the fire equipment that you people provide to the community out there,” said Peters. “We're very cognizant of the fact that the money you give us is taxpayers' dollars and we spend it accordingly.”

A 15-year-old rescue truck located at the Vaughans site is due for replacement this year, which is estimated to cost $350,000, but the CAO advised council the chief is going to try to make do this year.

Both stations provide a level 6 medical first response, which means they respond to cardiac arrests, lift assists or motor vehicle collisions, or when requested by paramedics.

Brooklyn

More than an hour of discussion was held concerning Brooklyn Fire Department's Station 1 and Station 2: Three Mile Plains substation budgets.

Deputy Fire Chief Jason Cochrane took the lead on the presentation.

“There's a slight increase in our budget of $514,900. That has remained constant for the last two years,” said Cochrane, indicating they've held the budget in order to benefit the taxpayers but want an increase of about $44,000.

Cochrane said the two stations have a total of 95 volunteers — 75 regular members, 16 juniors, three active veterans and one mutual aid member.

The Brooklyn Fire Department answered 441 alarms last year, which included automatic aid calls. Seventy of the calls were multiple alarm incidents.

Cochrane said one of the only local volunteer fire departments that is comparable in size and equipment is the Kentville Fire Department. He said Kentville Fire responds to 400 alarms annually. They have nine apparatus and 41 active firefighters plus a few active veterans. Unlike Brooklyn, they operate out of one building.

He said Kentville Fire has an annual operating budget of $592,000 and a capital budget of $626,000, which is a combined budget of $1.218 million.

*Kentville pays a stipend to its chief and two deputies, has a full time custodian and part-time emergency vehicle technician. They also have part time administration assistant.

According to budget documents, Brooklyn employs a maintenance and apparatus superintendent ($50,000) and janitorial/cleaner ($15,000).

As for honorariums, Brooklyn Station 1 is seeking $60,000, and its substation in Three Mile Plains is seeking $20,000.

Cochrane said West Hants residents are getting a deal for Brooklyn's services.

“We feel that the taxpayers of West Hants are getting a great value from Brooklyn Fire Department and its members who look after the two facilities,” said Cochrane.

Council asked a variety of questions following the presentation, with Coun. Kathy Monroe taking issue with how the department's fundraiser for another thermal imaging camera came across in the public. She said the comments in the newspaper made it appear like they turned Brooklyn down for funding.

McDade said they never asked council to help pay for the device.

“Actually, it wasn't a slight. I met with Martin the day before and he told me that finances were going to be very tight this year and to bring back our budget as best we could so that's what we did,” said McDade.

“That camera was a need not a want and that's why we incurred the fundraising for it.”

The camera and mount costs about $11,000. They've fundraised nearly $3,700 for it to date.

McDade was asked what kind of medical response Brooklyn provides. Station 1 offers a level 4 response, which means they are notified of all medical emergencies, while Station 2 offers a level 6 response, which means they respond if requested by the paramedics or if it's a cardiac arrest, lift assist or motor vehicle collision.

The next day, on April 4, as council was giving the CAO direction on how to proceed with the budget, Daniels asked that Brooklyn's fuel budget be reined in to be in line with the other fire departments.

“If we give them a little more leaner budget that they have to work in, I don't think that's too much to ask. If they have to come back, I'm sure we have a contingency somewhere that we can allow them a wee bit more gas,” said Daniels, noting they don't have a policy yet when it comes to fire departments taking apparatus outside of the fire district.


  • Amount requested for fuel for 2018-19

    Walton: $2,000*

    Mount Uniacke: $400*

    Summerville: $3,000

    Hantsport: $5,000

    Hantsport Station 2: $2,500

    Brooklyn: $12,000

    Brooklyn Station 2: $6,000

    * Walton and Mount Uniacke also receive fuel allowances from East Hants.


Warden Abraham Zebian suggested meeting with the chiefs to discuss the fuel issue further.

“I'd feel more comfortable with a fire advisory meeting,” said Zebian. “(That way) it's not a rushed decision, like we're trying to do now. It's so we can discuss it further. I think you're on the right track. I'm with you on it.”

Coun. Debbie Francis spoke against changing Brooklyn's fuel allowance, saying that could be addressed while they're working through the municipality's fire policy.

A vote was held to remove $3,000 from Brooklyn's fuel budget. Council was deadlocked 4-4 and the motion was defeated.

Council will resume reviewing the budget April 17 at 5 p.m.

*Note: In a previous version of this story, a Brooklyn Fire Department member said that Kentville Fire has a paid chief and two paid deputies, plus a part time administration assistant and two full time employees – a caretaker and an emergency vehicle technician. We have since modified this story for accuracy. The emergency vehicle technician is only a part-time position and the chief and two deputies receive stipends.

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