News

Investigation: County had no notice of PFD plans

A photo of Rescue 3 shows the unit empty of the necessary equipment firefighters need to operate. The photo is from a report, recently made public, into the transfer of fire equipment from the PFD to Ponoka County April 2016. - Photo from the Town of Ponoka fire investigation report
A photo of Rescue 3 shows the unit empty of the necessary equipment firefighters need to operate. The photo is from a report, recently made public, into the transfer of fire equipment from the PFD to Ponoka County April 2016.
— image credit: Photo from the Town of Ponoka fire investigation report

A 39-page report by All Fire Investigations inquiring into the premature transfer of fire rescue vehicles from the Ponoka Fire Department (PFD) to Ponoka County confirms that no notice was given and vehicles were stripped of much of the necessary equipment to operate safely, leaving county firefighters ill-equipped to use those vehicles.

The partially redacted report, commissioned by the Town of Ponoka in May 2016, is the culmination of an investigation last October after the PFD dropped equipment off on April 25, one day before scheduled.

The report determines that PFD Fire Chief Jamie Wilkinson had made an administrative decision to transfer the equipment early. Vehicles were stripped, washed and partially reloaded, mostly with old equipment.

Investigations show that Wilkinson notified CAO Albert Flootman of the change of date, that the county was advised of the change and was in agreement with the change in plans.

“During our interview, Chief Wilkinson stated that he had spoken with (Regional) Chief (Dennis) Jones on April 25th and informed him that Ponoka fire personnel would deliver the units during the evening,” explains the report.

Interviews with county officers contrast with Wilkinson’s.

County CAO Charlie Cutforth, Jones and East District Fire Chief Dale Morrow all said to the investigator they had received no such calls. All Fire confirms through phone records that none of them received phone calls announcing the delivery change. The report also cites Mayor Rick Bonnett’s letter of apology on April 29 to Ponoka County residents, which states that no prior notification was made.

The transfer of equipment

The drop-off happened at approximately 8:30 p.m.

According to Morrow in the report, Fearon called and stated, “We’ve stripped the trucks clean and left them out front of your fire hall with keys in.”

County Deputy Chief Murray Dux noticed the activity at the county hall and called Morrow to inform him of what was occurring. According to the report, Dux approached a PFD pickup and asked the driver, PFD Deputy Chief Kelsey Hycha, as to why this was happening.

“Hycha simply replied that they were delivered tonight,” explains the report. “Dux then went on to ask how emergency calls would be handled. Hycha replied that all had been looked after.”

Former PFD Chief Ted Dillon was also aware of the transfer having seen crews drive by his location, states the report.

Jones was informed of the situation and he subsequently drove to the county hall. The report states that Jones then called Wilkinson to discuss emergency coverage considering, “that the county trucks, due to lack of necessary equipment on board, were not capable of effectively handling an emergency callout.”

Wilkinson informed Jones that Tender 20 was kept back for water supply and emergencies in the event of a call out. He was told that he could pick up the tender in the morning.

County firefighters took stock of the vehicles, documenting the empty storage spaces with photos and double-checking them against equipment sheets. Photos in the report show empty containers and a scattering of supplies on most of the vehicles.

Equipment was removed based on a claim by the Fire Brigade Society, which is a fundraising arm of the PFD that it belonged to the society. See page 2 for the story on the Brigade’s claims and All Fire’s summary.

A report of a break-in

One of the items requested by Jones for the Rescue 3 unit was some extrication tools, which were supplied but without necessary items to operate them safely.

Among the items requested was a blue file folder. This folder contains manuals and maintenance records for Rescue 3, and is referenced by Wilkinson several times in the report.

“From the onset of the interviews, Chief Wilkinson claimed that his office had been broken into sometime between 1700 hours (5 p.m.) on April 22nd to 0800 hours (8 a.m.) on April 25th, a weekend,” states the report.

The investigation shows that Wilkinson found it “quite coincidental” that Jones had asked for the folder in emails to the PFD chief.

When All Fire questioned Jones on how he knew about Rescue 3’s records and equipment model numbers, Jones replied that he was a long-standing member of the PFD and that he had copies of all the records for the vehicles.

Jones’ request to Wilkinson was made prior to the alleged break-in, states the report.

Incidentally, the report states that Wilkinson presented All Fire Investigations with a Fire Service Equipment Turnover sheet, which details that a blue file folder was indeed handed over to the county.

Despite the issue between the two departments, All Fire asked Wilkinson about the benefits of a regional fire system. “He replied that it was the way to go, but the Ponoka town council was not in favour of it.”

There should have been no surprises

Both the town and county fire chiefs should have planned carefully in advance about the transfer of equipment, states the report.

“Each Chief had the responsibility to keep their superiors and their response personnel advised.”

However, All Fire found that attempts at communication from the county to the PFD resulted in sporadic replies.

“To retrieve hose that had been tested by Ponoka Fire Department, after many emails, Chief Jones had to resort to having Mr. Cutforth make the request through Mr. Flootman,” states the report.

“These examples are cited only to point out the lack of communication and co-operation even for basic day to day tasks,” offers the report.

Further to that lack of communication Mayor Rick Bonnett told town council last May that emergency dispatch in Red Deer was not notified of the changeover.

Mayor and Reeve respond

For his part, Bonnett commended administration for releasing the report as per legal advice from the town’s lawyers.

County Reeve Paul McLauchlin said in an email statement that money has been spent needlessly by both municipalities, “in a time of severe financial downturn, this is a situation that requires a remedy.”

“It is our hope that this situation does not detract from the hard work and volunteerism exhibited by the PFD members,” says McLauchlin. “However, our offer still stands to work towards a regional umbrella for fire protection services, while supplying our residences with first class protective services programming.”

Everyone named in the report was provided a digital copy the day before the town made it public and town administration provided Ponoka News with a hard copy of the redacted report, with blacked out portions stating FOIP section 17(1) as the reason behind the removal. Residents wishing to see the report are asked to come to the town office and request a viewing.

 

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