The matter of developing regional fire services between the town and county of Ponoka was discussed during a regular meeting Tuesday, July 21 with the participation of councillors from both sides, who spent much time on the viability of a regional service and the current state of affairs of the Ponoka Fire Department.
Besides a full attendance of county council, town councillors Loanna Gulka, Sandra Lyon, Carla Prediger and Tim Falkiner were in the meeting hall along with new Ponoka Fire Chief Jamie Wilkinson and town CAO Rachel Kunz.
Regionalizing fire services
“The trend has been to regionalize fire departments and that would be the place I would start,” said Reeve Paul McLauchlin.
He said the ultimate goal was to provide county residents with service and how the actual agreement would look with the town is unclear until both groups start the process of consultation.
With significant developments in the lake areas, McLauchlin said there are more properties and structures that need protection.
“My view of a regional fire department is to look at it as a whole,” said the reeve, referring to a recent agreement the county made with the Town of Rimbey.
Town councillors were concerned about how a regional fire service would affect the new fire chief. Prediger asked if a structure fire occurred in Gull Lake would all fire departments (Rimbey and Ponoka) be called to the scene.
McLauchlin replied a fire services line is already in place and both fire departments consider those lines when taking a call.
“I don’t think it would change the service provision at all,” he said.
He said it would be a management change rather than service level change. Bringing the departments under one banner would be another way to find efficiencies in equipment use and allocation, he added.
County CAO Charlie Cutforth said he doesn’t believe there was ever a time when fire response wasn’t available. “I don’t foresee that the system itself would change a whole lot in terms of coverage,” said Cutforth.
He feels the difference may be in a regional fire chief and a local fire chief.
“Rimbey currently has their own fire chief,” said Cutforth.
Prediger asked what the leadership model would look like.
“We need to respect the leadership and the chain of command,” McLauchlin replied.
He suggested the goal is to stay out of the way of the fire department and let firefighters do their jobs. A proper model would allow firefighters to do what they do best, he added.
Gulka wondered what that model would look like. “We could go with a commission, we could go with a board of representatives…what do you think about that?”
McLauchlin was clear that the county’s goal is to go regional and to look at several models such as Lacombe County’s and the City of Lacombe’s.
“You need to be administered under one umbrella but I do think you can be accountable to a commission,” said McLauchlin.
In the past former Fire Chief Ted Dillon would speak with county council and discuss needs and wants of the PFD, he added.
County wants equal partnership
County Coun. Mark Matejka said his biggest concern is over how little say the county has over operations of the department while providing an equal amount of money in its cost. “Not the service but the control and input is limited with the agreement we have right now.”
County Coun. Doug Weir added he wants the county to be an equal partner with the town related to the fire department. “The only thing I’m going to support is a full out partnership.”
The county was not involved in the hiring of the new chief and McLauchlin said they would like to see that change.
“One would think you would be consulted but then you’re not, which makes you think you’re a second-class citizen,” added Weir.
Ponoka County already has an agreement with the Town of Rimbey and the Summer Village of Parkland Beach. Cutforth said the county provided the Town of Ponoka with a similar agreement to Rimbey’s.
In the Rimbey agreement, the county agrees to fund 100 per cent of the cost of fire service for the 15-year term of the agreement. In lieu of any annual contribution for operations and capital investments the town agreed to transfer the title and property to the county for $1. Ownership of capital equipment and vehicles were also transferred to the county.
County councillors advocated negotiating towards a working agreement with the Town of Ponoka. The goal is to meet sometime in September to build a working model.
County councillors voted 4-1 in favour of moving forward with a regional service. Matejka voted against the motion.
Firefighters want stability
McLauchlin said during a barbecue/meeting with town councillors and members of the PFD the night before, he gathered they wanted stability in the organization.
He wants to create a long-term agreement with the town to ensure volunteer firefighters and Wilkinson have that stability.
“It was identified in the audit that there are two camps. There’s still two camps. That’s the concern,” said McLauchlin.
Cutforth said he had heard concerns from senior and long-term firefighters worried about issues within the department.
“Is our level of coverage at risk here today if we do nothing? I believe there is (a risk),” said Cutforth.
Lyon wanted clarification on what the county is concerned over. McLauchlin answered that it appears the chain of command within the fire department has been broken, which has created two camps.
“Jamie’s going to take that on and by no means do I want to meddle in that,” he added.
Falkiner asked why the county did not direct firefighters back to the appropriate chain of command.
McLauchlin said the county had done that and attempted to avoid breaking up the chain of command. Cutforth added in the many years he has been with the county, he had never had a complaint on the fire department’s abilities and he is proud of their dedication.
“I’m not here to solve the fire hall’s problems. I’m here to build the infrastructure to make sure the fire hall is successful,” added McLauchlin.
Wilkinson suggested that, to make it work, both the town and county CAOs need to open up the lines of communication.
Members of both councils had met the night before at an informal barbecue at the Fire Hall to meet the new fire chief and to discuss a recent report on the Ponoka Fire Department. The details of that report have not been made public and requests by Ponoka News to the town to make the document public have been declined.