With crunch time looming on the continuation of providing fire protection in half of its area, Ponoka County has decided it needs to take action and is moving forward on ensuring its eastern residents will have a fire service that can respond if needed.
County council approved a motion at its meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 10 that will see the creation of what is being called the Ponoka East County Regional Fire Department as well as passing motions, effective Jan. 1, 2016, that will see responsibility for invoicing of fire department service calls on area highways in the county. In addition, the new Regional Fire Chief Dennis Jones – who will officially take over his duties on Nov. 30 – has been given the authority to conduct random audits on all fire calls in the county come the new year.
Council was also told the consultant who assisted the county during the hiring process for Jones has been retained to conduct a full review of what the regional fire department organization should look like – from its structure to necessary equipment and right down to the bylaws that currently govern the county’s fire protection services.
According to Ponoka County chief administrative officer (CAO) Charlie Cutforth, the motions and the review are all about ensuring that the county can provide efficient and effective fire protection services to its residents in the event that an agreement on bringing the Ponoka Fire Department into the regional fire department model isn’t completed before the former fire protection agreement between the county and Town of Ponoka ends next April.
“What it all boils down to is we are proceeding with establishing a district fire department so the county can be ready to provide residents with the service they expect should our current agreement expire before a new one can be completed,” Cutforth explained in an interview last week.
“We understand that town has their own issues to deal with and by doing this, it lets them come back to us when they are ready.”
He added council came to this conclusion following some lengthy discussions with its new regional fire chief and the consultant.
“Through our discussions, it was made quite clear to council by both Dennis (Jones) and our consultant that there isn’t a lot of time left to get organized in case that agreement expires without something else in place,” Cutforth stated.
“And if there is a need for us to have to provide our own fire protection services, then we needed to begin planning now to make certain we had our own department in place to ensure the safety of our residents.”
Including in the planning is nailing down what equipment they currently own – which includes one pumper unit presently being used and housed at the Ponoka Fire Department, sourcing out possible volunteer firefighting personnel (which may include previous or current firefighters that live in the area), to staff the department, purchasing the necessary gear, hoses and other firefighting/rescue equipment to supply the department, finding a temporary location for a fire hall and potentially having to negotiate with the Town of Ponoka regarding the allocation of or compensation for the presently shared-ownership of several units currently stored at the Ponoka Fire Department.
However, Ponoka County’s preference is to have an agreement signed, sealed and delivered on a regional fire protection service with the town before ever having to take the step – and the expense – of going that route. The only problem is time is quickly running out with the present agreement expiring on Apr. 28, 2016.
“As I explained to Doug (Wright, the town’s interim CAO) through some emails last week, the matter of getting this agreement finished has been pending for at least a year and while we still value our relationship with the town and it remains our sincere desire to see the agreement done, it was recommended to us as a county that the timelines for having something in place to meet our needs are getting very tight should the agreement expire,” Cutforth stated.
“The Town of Ponoka and Ponoka County have had this fire services partnership for 33 years, and when the town is ready in the future, it would be wonderful to continue with that, but we can’t wait any longer.”
He added that if the two municipalities can complete an agreement in time, all of the planning being done will not be in vain considering the significant growth of subdivisions in the county along with the potential future growth of the town.
“What the future will bring, who knows? If there continues to be growth – whether in the county or the town – there may be a need for expansion of fire protection services, possibly including a new hall filled with equipment and members, to serve and that may mean another hall or a new larger location to replace the present one, but that is all something that can be looked at down the road,” he said.