East County FD already preparing for takeover

Disappointment and finality for county over town decision to have separate fire services.

A sense of disappointment combined with a feeling of finally being able to move forward is what can describe Ponoka County’s sentiment regarding fire protection service last week.

On Tuesday, Jan. 12, the Town of Ponoka voted to not join the regional fire protection service with Ponoka County, which meant the county could press on with their plans to establish a new fire department to cover the other half of the county when the present agreement expires at the end of April.

County Reeve Paul McLauchlin expressed his feelings on the issue in an interview last Friday (Jan. 15).

“It’s tough, with the split (town council) has and with as much as has gone on with them recently, to govern,” he said.

“It’s tricky to interact (with them) until they work out their issues. However, (county council) will always keep the door open.”

McLauchlin reiterated what he has stated for the last few months, that the county will work with the town to find a suitable mutual aid agreement to provide assistance on fire calls when requested but acknowledged that could be difficult or next to impossible in the short term to achieve with what’s transpired.

“The fact is the relationship has been strained and while we would like to come together on a mutual aid agreement, with the complexities involved and the negativity surrounding this issue, it will be very hard to get done,” he added.

Some of those hard feelings showed through during the town council discussion with one councillor placing the blame squarely on the county for the situation, something McLauchlin found disappointing.

“As council’s representative, we took a bit of an exception to the comments that the county started all of this. We simply responded to a situation that only makes sense for us,” he said.

“This issue has been discussed a lot over the last few years and really, from our perspective, came to the forefront when Rimbey asked for help in supporting their fire department and the pressure we have been getting from our lake property residents to meet their needs for improved fire protection due to the growth in that area.

“The regional fire service model is the economic reality in this province, with us being one of the last remaining parts to go in this direction, so it’s not something that is new. We have never said this was about response to calls. The Ponoka Fire Department has always been excellent, but this is simply about the delivery of that service.”

With the decision, the county is pushing ahead with putting the pieces together on the new East County Fire Department that has been in the works since the hiring of Regional Fire Chief Dennis Jones back in November.

County chief administrative officer (CAO) Charlie Cutforth explained the process has already begun with the town’s CAO Doug Wright to determine just what compensation is owed to each municipality regarding the buying out of the shared assets and with Jones moving ahead with making decisions on where a new fire hall will be, coordinating the lease and purchase of fire apparatus and equipment for firefighters as well as setting up a new communications system and hiring a new deputy chief for the department.

No dollar figures have been made public regarding compensation, as discussions are still to take place on what shared equipment will become property of the county or of the town. The county wholly owns one 2007 pumper, two tanker units, an older pumper unit as well as the emergency livestock incident trailer and the 6×6 off-highway wildfire-equipped vehicle with its trailer.

All of this was part of the plan presented and approved by council at its meeting last month, where the regional fire service was given approval for a $500,000 operational budget for 2016. Council will now also look at a request to buy a new combination rescue/pumper unit at an estimated cost of $436,000.

Cutforth added they are presently looking at a one- to two-year lease on a building noting there are at least four options currently being looked at and that if needed, East County Fire Department could be fully operational in three to four weeks

“We have the fire apparatus we own at the Ponoka Fire Department (PFD), plus access to other apparatus and gear for the firefighters from various sources that could get us up and running shortly. There are also 26 people, almost all of which are very experienced and trained firefighters that are currently or previous members of the Ponoka Fire Department, signed up to be part of East County,” he said, adding that when they heard there was a possible rift in that department last year and there was a risk of losing that experience on the front-line of fighting fires, that was one more reason to look at moving to a regional service.

“When the elephant in the room about some possible internal issues (at PFD) came to us out of the blue, I took it to the town’s (now former) CAO and was promptly told not to threaten them and that we were just a client. That was also followed later that we would not be involved in the hiring of the fire chief’s replacement.

“I had always thought of the fire service from Ponoka with a sense of pride and one of the top departments in the province. We were not interested in seeing more money being spent to operate both departments, but we will do what it takes to provide for our residents. A number of times we tried to extend an olive branch to the town, but were turned down each time.”

Both Cutforth and McLauchlin said it’s been a difficult period of nearly a year in dealing with the issue and with a governing structure and organization that, from the outside, looks somewhat dysfunctional.

Meanwhile, as has been stated previously by McLauchlin and the rest of county council, residents are urged to remain confident they will be well protected by the new department and that they are heading in the right direction.

“It’s regrettable the town has decided to go it alone, but there are things that go beyond just this situation on both sides,” Cutforth stated.

“Whatever the numbers are, starting up a new department is going to be expensive. However, the long term plan for us is that this is our most important service to our residents and, that while changes are being made, this isn’t the end of the world and (the town) feels this isn’t the road they want to take at this time and there are other things at play.

“We are going to now just continue moving forward.”