Residents want town and county to work together on fire department dispute

After hearing from concerned residents, town and county of Ponoka councillors are working towards a new fire services agreement.

After hearing from concerned residents, town and county of Ponoka councillors are working towards a new fire services agreement.

Councils of both municipalities came together at a public meeting Monday, Sept. 14 with residents of both communities and members of the Ponoka Fire Department (PFD) in attendance. Also in attendance was a full cohort of town employees.

Mayor Rick Bonnett opened the meeting saying the town is interested in keeping the same service agreement, which was signed in 1994 with Ponoka County. “Our position is obviously status quo,” the mayor emphasized.

The county’s position, however, is to regionalize fire services within the county, which would include the Town of Ponoka.

“We’re looking at regionalizing fire service . . . We’re looking at hiring a regional fire chief. We’d like to hire the chief with the mayor of Ponoka,” explained Reeve Paul McLauchlin.

One message that came across clearly to councillors is residents don’t want to see unnecessary duplication of infrastructure. Oliver Mickey suggested separating the departments would bring unnecessary costs to taxpayers.

Bill Crawford, a former deputy chief with the PFD, suggested the cost to the town separating from the county and not receiving financial support would bring a negative effect. “As a town, we cannot afford to have a disagreement with the county.”

The biggest concern for one resident was how that decision would affect the PFD. Former PFD captain Kelly Moore spoke plainly about his opinion of the situation. “You guys gotta pull your heads out of your asses and talk,” he stated.

How would a regional/collaborative service look?

Determining what a regional service would look like remains unclear with both councils suggesting more information is needed before coming to an agreement. Town Coun. Carla Prediger provided council and attendees with a list of fire departments across the province that are regionalized and those that are not.

On the list are only three communities that do not have a regional service agreement: Blackfalds, Grand Cache and Hanna.

Prediger suggests both councils need to research how the regionalization has worked, a stance the county has been taking since these discussions began.

She also provided an idea of how the organization of the regional service could look.

Prediger suggested a regional board with a district/regional fire chief who would answer to that board and be provided administration support. Within the municipalities there would be a Ponoka deputy fire chief, or fire chief, and the same for Rimbey and Ponoka County.

“Each fire chief would be responsible for their own facility,” Prediger offered.

While he didn’t provide an exact idea, McLauchlin said a new agreement could look similar to that model.

“I don’t think we’re going against an advisory function,” he said in response to the idea of a collaboration board.

To help with the negotiations of how the agreement could look, the county is going to hire a fire chief as soon as possible, he added. McLauchlin suggested the two municipalities have mutual goals.

“It fits your structure other than some autonomy,” said McLauchlin.

Town Coun. Marc Yaworski disagreed stating the county’s needs are in the west near Gull Lake, which may not apply to the town but McLauchlin replied that west of Ponoka is an important area for both municipalities.

“The Highway 2 corridor is a huge benefit to both of us,” said McLauchlin.

County wants more say

One of the reasons Ponoka County provided notice to the aged service agreement was over concerns it had no say in the town’s operations.

Town Coun. Loanna Gulka suggested the agreement does not state anywhere that the county is required a say. “It’s driving a wedge, especially between our firefighters. You’re asking them to choose.”

McLauchlin replied that the goal is to remove that wedge. He added that the two councils met last May to ensure there is more communication between the two municipalities on the department.

Yet when two firefighters, Donna Noble and Dennis Jones, both 10 year veterans, provided notice of their retirement from the department a week prior to the meeting, county council and administration were not notified.

Coun. Teri Underhill suggested that if she provided half the funding for something and was not allowed any say in its operation, she would be upset as well. “Let’s think about our side.”

“They (Ponoka County) want a say. Why shouldn’t they have a say?” asked Underhill.

An area of large growth in the county is west of Ponoka near Meridian Beach and Gull Lake areas, offered Bonnett. He suggests the county is trying to ensure fire protection of its residents and not to fight with the Town of Ponoka.

“The growth in the county is bigger than the growth in the town,” said Bonnett.

County CAO Charlie Cutforth suggested over the years the service agreement has been mutually beneficial in such a way that it was followed in Alberta. “We’ve been considered a model for the province in communities of this size.”

While the county is considered a client, it was always treated like a partner, he added. Regardless of the county’s relationship in the agreement, he said the county should have some opportunity to ask questions and receive answers on agreements.

The firefighters’ perspective

From an operational perspective, Fire Chief Jamie Wilkinson’s biggest concern is to keep his department unified.

“Going forward, we have to have a department built on trust,” he explained.

Some firefighters also raised their concerns over how this agreement would look.

Deputy chief Kelsey Hycha suggested having multiple fire chiefs in different jurisdictions under the same building would create confusion for firefighters. “Sharing the roof, that’s like having two coaches on a hockey team.”

He did, however, add that a regional fire chief, similar to that of Lacombe County’s does bring benefits to operations. Hycha suggested that each community would have their own fire chief and they would take care of their operations but answer to the regional chief.

“That way you have one leader,” said Hycha.

This would ensure firefighters know who to answer to at any emergency scene.

As for the management of the department some firefighters spoke in favour of the new modus operandi.

In a clear demonstration of how high emotions have been running among the firefighters, PFD member Derek Lewis alleged a wedge was created by former Fire Chief Ted Dillon and that he felt county council is getting misinformation from other parties. He also alleged that Dillon played favourites within the department and neglected to maintain equipment. Having recently retired, Dillon was not present at the meeting.

In another expression of a personal standpoint, PFD member Ken Kraft claimed the two firefighters who resigned recently were “two cancers” to the fire department. He was also concerned Dillon would be hired to work for the county.

County Coun. Bryce Liddle reassured the PFD members that the services provided by the department is not, and has never been the issue. “We’re getting too personal here,” he suggested.

County invites mayor into hiring process

McLauchlin said that the county wants to conduct an open bid for the fire new fire chief position and he invited Bonnett into the hiring process. “This is our most important service . . . we need the town.”

“Our goal is to do what’s right for everyone,” he added.

Cutforth later reported that county council had decided, following an emergency meeting, to advertise for a fire chief position for the county with the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association. He said the mayors of Rimbey and Ponoka and a consultant Ken Kendall would be invited to be part of the hiring process.

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