Challenges: The 2023 Cortes Island Firefighting Association AGM

An overwhelming majority of the 50 or so people that turned out (in person or via ZOOM) to the Cortes Island Firefighting Association (CIFFA) AGM on Thursday, Mar 30, were supportive of the fire department. 

CIFFA has a contract to provide fire fighting services, with the Strathcona Regional District (SRD).

A number of attendees questioned the Strathcona Regional District’s current idea of setting up of a regional system, with a Fire Chief in Campbell River.  

Hall #1 in Mansons Landing – courtesy Google Earth

“I just wondered if the Regional District has a mandate to provide the level of fire service that Cortes Island has developed for itself over the last 30 years? If they take over our department, is there any saying whether or not they have to provide the kind of fire service that we have here?” asked Aaron Ellingsen.  

Christine Robinson added, “I think there’s no concern about the budget, it’s about governance and process.  I want to know once we pass the budget, what comes next? How do we get clarity from the SRD as to how we move forward in keeping self-governance on Cortes?”

Andy Ellingsen said, “I would hate to leave this call without a clear statement of the importance that I see of keeping the control of our fire department at the local level. I do not see how we can run a volunteer fire department with a Chief that’s appointed and answers to the SRD in Campbell River.”

This was one of the many supportive comments that prompted a round of clapping and applause.

The entire slate of 7 DIrectors proposed by CIFFA was voted in. Sadhu Johnston, the former City Manager of Vancouver who at one point in the meeting was called CIFFA’s ‘ringer,’ will continue in his new role as President. Chris Walker is Vice President. Lisa Ferentinos is the new Secretary/Treasurer. Wes KIrk, Chris Dragseth, Aaron Ellingsen and Dave Robertson are Directors at Large.

Most attendees recognized that there must be an increase in the budget in order to meet the new provincial standards taking effect in March 2024. The budget for 2023, which calls an increase of just under $250 for the average property owner, was approved.  

Someone did question the budget’s pay rises, “You can only pay so much out of your local tax base. Obviously you can’t pay your Fire Chief on Cortes the same amount that you might have to in Campbell River. It’s a completely different tax base. So how do they work that up?” 

Interim Fire Chief Eli McKenty replied, “The Chief on Cortes makes less than a regular firefighter in Campbell River. The Chiefs in Campbell River and all the officers are paid vastly more.” 

(In a previous interview, Vice President Chris Walker pointed out that CIFFA wants to pay the Fire Chief $90,000 per year and the average firefighter in Campbell River makes $120,000.)

Sadhu Johnston explained, “If we look back at the past decade, the spend thrift nature of our operation has kept costs really low and really what it should be doing is going up evenly over time so you don’t have this kind of bumpy increase. I think it’s incumbent upon the board to be thinking about the next five years and looking at what increases are needed. So we can stay on top of it and not have a big jump in one year — which is really jarring.”

“It’s something to recognize that training, fuel insurance, all of these costs are going up. We need to project that out  and try to be proactive so that taxpayers know what to expect in the years ahead. Typically what a municipality would try to do would be to project those costs over time and try to predict a little bit in advance, which I think we’ve done well with the fire truck that’s needed. The money’s been put in reserve so we don’t need to pay it all at once. It can be purchased with the money that’s been put in the bank over time. That is the kind of approach we want to take with  the whole department.” 

Andy Ellingsen wanted to know the legalities of making such a large increase in a single year, “It’s my understanding that the local fire department is basically paid for through taxation on the property owners on the island and the enabling legislation has a limit on how much that taxation will be. My question is, are we getting close to the limit with the proposed increase to the budget? And if so, do we need to go back to  the electors in our community and get that bylaw revised?” 

However property values have been rising. 

McKenty said, “I heard yesterday that we’re actually lower within our requisition than we were in 2018.”

Johnston elaborated, “The limit is at $1 per $100,000 and we are at  83¢ cents right now. So we have about 20¢ to manoeuvre in the upcoming years.” 

VIce President Walker described the origins of CIFFA’s current problem with the Strathcona Regional District. It goes back to last November, when Fire Chief Dave Ives was dismissed.

CW: “Chief Ives was a capable, committed, qualified person, but it did not work out in terms of his adaptability to the culture of our fire department,  specifically around directions to be taken about training. So we parted our ways, not as amicably as we might have liked, but  it was during his probationary period. So we were not contractually obligated to  pay him severance or anything. He was gone rather suddenly as it turned out. That resulted, in within a few short days, of him writing a letter to various agencies, including the regional district in which he said things. A few of them were based in some  truth and were actually useful criticism, unfortunately there was a lot of it that was highly problematic, slanderous and inaccurate.  However it got sent out by the official channels, so the SRD had to take it seriously.” 

“The SRD already had a background of being suspicious of society run fire departments. It’s not something they’re really comfortable with. It’s a model which has been seen to be in decline across the province. There’s probably only 15 now, and there used to be 80 or 90.  Their attitude, I believe, is that it’s possibly outdated and it opens them up to certain liabilities. They’ve talked to us periodically through the last 15 years about wishing to open discussions about changing the governance structure for the Cortes Island Fire Department. To this point, they haven’t really come to us with a concrete plan and good reasoning behind it.”

“So we’ve carried on doing what we do. I think it’s safe to say there’s a philosophy within our board that a society run department, where  the board of directors is voted in by the public, is inherently desired by this community as opposed to a central bureaucracy in Campbell River, who may or may not, have ever been here making all the decisions.”

“We are open to discussing things with the SRD, but that’s the background.” 

“The Ives letter seems to have triggered more activity in that direction. The SRD question whether or not they want to continue with the current governance.” 

CIFFA’s 5 year contract came up for renewal on January 25, 2023, at which point the SRD changed to monthly contracts.

“We were already trying to have a discussion with them and we got nowhere. They were not interested in talking to us.  They wouldn’t tell us why they’re not interested in talking to us and it went past the deadline, and they still wouldn’t talk to us.” 

“Sadhu did manage to have a conversation with the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of the SRD who said, ‘don’t jump into these things. You’re getting ahead of yourselves. We’re working on that.’ But they wouldn’t tell us anymore.”

“This is of particular importance because when we elected to say goodbye to Mr. Ives, Deputy Chief Eli McKinney very thankfully and importantly, was able to step in. That took the pressure off of us, but Chief McKenty has made it clear he is not interested in taking on this position for the long term. He would like to get back to welding boats.” 

CIFFA needs to find a new Chief, but can’t sign a contract with anyone until they know there will be funds to pay them. 

Meanwhile the SRD spent Cortes Island tax dollars to hire an auditor to assess the operational capacity and competence of the fire department.

They did not release the results for two months, during which time CIFFA hired its own auditor. 

“We shared our results immediately with the SRD, staff and all of the elected representatives in the Regional District.”

In response, the SRD sent Johnston a letter stating he should only communicate through CAO David Leitch. 

“All of the SRD discussions about the Cortes Fire Department are ‘in camera,’ which means in private.”

Cortes Island Regional Director Mark Vonesch is not allowed to tell CIFFA anything and, as Walker points out, ‘he doesn’t tell us anything.’    

“We’re just guessing constantly what’s going on and what their intentions are. Sadhu has been trying to have a Zoom meeting with David Leitch and David Leitch repeatedly says he doesn’t think it’s appropriate to have a Zoom meeting. So we’re stuck until Sadhu (who is abroad) gets back, but at least David Leitch has said he will have a meeting. Whether he’ll tell us anything, we don’t know.” 

Johnston, who was attending the meeting by ZOOM, conceded there could be benefits to a more centralized service model, but:

“As a board, we don’t want decisions related to firefighting services on Cortes to be made  in an in camera session without engaging in discussion with the community and with the CIFFA board. Really, that’s what we’re asking for. If CIFFA and firefighting services need to evolve on Cortes, let’s have a conversation about what that looks like and let’s look at how other places are doing it, and then lets, as a community discuss whether that’s a model that we want to support.”

“Right now, we’re in the dark and so we’re assuming the worst. We want to engage in conversation and understand what the concerns are, find ways we can address the SRD concerns with tweaking the model in some way. Not being able to talk about what they are and problem solve them together is not a very productive way to protect our island from a fire. Look at what happened in Lytton. We need to make sure that we have appropriate resources, really well trained staff and we’re doing everything we can.  Ultimately, we are worried, as a board, that decisions made in closed door rooms could be a vulnerability for our community. That’s why  we’ve mobilized in the way that we have.” 

Walker stressed the fact that most SRD staff are hardworking people who are trying to help the people of Cortes Island. 

“The only problem that I’ve ever had is with Mr. Leach, and it’s continuing,” he said. 

Shaun Koopman, the SRD emergency services coordinator, will be on Cortes next week.  

“I’m sure he’ll try and help us as much as he’s able to.”

Chief McKenty pointed out a potential problem if the SRD takes over the service, “The firefighters are all volunteers and it’s their choice whether they would transfer their allegiance to become regional district volunteers rather than Cortes fire department volunteers. There is a risk that if the  SRD is unwilling to cooperate with us, we could lose our service through the firefighters deciding that they didn’t care to participate any longer.”

Bruce Ellingsen asked, “Does Quadra Island operate a volunteer system like ours?” 

“They operate a volunteer system, but they are a Fire Protection District similar to a Water Improvement District. They’re not involved with the Regional District. They draw their authority and their funding directly from the province and are very pleased about that last time I spoke to their Chief.”

This remark prompted a round of laughter from the assembly.

Ellingsen continued, “What would it take for Cortes to move in that direction?” 

“That’s something we’d have to look into. I don’t know.” 

Fire Chief McKenty also gave an overview of his time in office.

“I took over as interim Chief at the beginning of November, and it’s been a very busy five months learning the administrative ropes, upgrading our department of training, record keeping and regulatory compliance, and dealing with the political fallout from our previous Chief.” 

“It’s been a year of many challenges and changes for the department, but we’re coming out of it stronger than ever. We have a well trained, safe and effective crew. Our equipment is in good shape and we are on our way to being a model rural fire department.”

“We do continue to have a good working relationship with Shaun Koopman, the Regional District Protective Services Coordinator.”

“In the past year, we have had approximately 58 calls including one major structure fire, six wildfires, a chimney fire, a boat fire, three motor vehicle incidents, 19 medical assist calls (including calls for use of the heli pad), 3 medical rescues plus investigations, hydro trouble calls, marine incidents, burning complaints, gas leaks, alarm activations, and so on.”

“The department currently has 27 members, consisting of myself as Chief, Mack Diver the assistant Chief, 1 captain, 3 lieutenants, 18 trained firefighters, 1 rookie firefighter, and 2 recruits.” 

“We had an excellent recruitment drive in September, which was responsible for 8 of our current members, and we’ll be accepting new recruits again this coming September. I’ve already had interest from several potential candidates.” 

“Currently we are quite short of Duty Officers, but I expect to have additional members fully qualified by the end of April.  I’ve served 54 of the past 60 twenty-four-hour shifts, so looking forward to some relief on that front.”

“We are currently trained to the BC Structural Firefighters Playbook Training standard, and are in the process of transitioning to the new provincial training standards, which come into effect March of next year.

The new standard will require increased time commitment from our members and officers. The department is intending to hire a part-time Training Officer, possibly to be combined with the Deputy Chief position. The Training Officer will be adapting and expanding the basic training materials to the needs of our department and community, while continuing to meet and exceed the minimum training requirements as we transition to the new regulatory framework due to the increasing demands we are making of our volunteers to continue meeting the regulatory requirements.”

“We reviewed the participation stipends and benefits offered by other volunteer departments, and found that we were far below the average. As a result, we are increasing our training stipend from $10 an hour to $20 an hour for members who meet the minimum attendance requirement of 50% of practices, and we’ll be offering medical and dental benefits to members who make 70% or more.”

“The reaction to this has been extremely positive, and attendance numbers are currently excellent.” 

“Our equipment and facilities are in good shape, but require ongoing investment to continue to remain reliable and compliant.” 

“In 2022, we discovered that our self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBA, while still in excellent shape, are no longer supported by the manufacturer and cannot be serviced reliably or receive their required annual testing within the province. Thanks in large parts to very successful grant writing and a generous anonymous donation, we are able to order a full set of 10 replacement SCBAs for a cost of $116,000. This is how the regulations are driving up costs, because the stuff we have is perfectly serviceable, but can no longer be certified. We’ve begun upgrading our breathing air compressor system in anticipation of receiving delivery of these new higher pressure SCBAs.”

The new regulations have changed the fire department’s reserve air capacity requirements. 

“Our current equipment is good for about 20 to 25 minutes in a fire situation but, under the new requirements, those bottles will only last us 10 to 12 minutes before we have to withdraw and switch bottles.”

“We are currently looking for a replacement for Engine 101, the main pumper from Hall #1. It’s beyond the H limit for the Fire Underwriters Survey to recognize as a frontline pumper and is beginning to be mechanically unreliable. We have currently $200,000 in our capital Reserve set aside for this upgrade and hope to find a suitable used engine within this budget. New engines can run closer to $650,000.”

 “As part of our work safe review, we found that while within safe levels, the exhaust handling system at Hall #1 installed by BC Ambulance many years ago requires improvement. So this year we will also be upgrading the vehicle exhaust system in Hall #1 and installing a system in Hall #2, which has to this point, only had passive ventilation.” 

“This year, we also successfully completed a grant funded Fire Smart Renovation to Hall # in Whaletown, to improve its resistance to wildfire.”

“One of our challenges this year has been improving our records management systems. We have hired a new part-time office manager, Tammy Allwork, who’s been a huge help improving the record keeping and paperwork. We are currently in the process of fully implementing a digital records management system, including ongoing records of all calls, required training, maintenance, and testing of equipment, et cetera.”

“Overall, we have a strong department and a great team, and we look forward to continuing to serve our community. We are working on several exciting initiatives, including the long awaited full launch of the medical first responder service, better water storage, training and equipping towards superior water shuttle accreditation, which will hopefully reduce fire insurance costs quite noticeably.” 

“To close, I would like to thank the firefighters for making this the excellent fire department it is, the board for all their hard work and dedication, and the community for all of your support. Thank you.” 

Links of Interest:

Top image credit: Some of the Cortes Island Fire Fighters – Photo courtesy Cortes Island Fire department

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