A fire Chief standing beside racks of yellow and red fire fighters gear.

Interview with Cortes Island’s new Interim Fire Chief

(Transcript of the radio program, with edits)

Eli McKenty had been Cortes Island’s Interim Fire Chief for 15 days when I interviewed him. He was actually the Department’s preferred choice as Fire Chief five months ago, but turned the job down, so they hired someone from Alberta. After five months of a six month trial period, the Cortes Island Fire Department came to the conclusion that ‘aspects of Dave Ives’ leadership style were at odds with the culture of our fire department’ and he was dismissed. McKenty agreed to be the Fire Chief until they can find a replacement. 

Interim Fire Chief Eli McKenty – courtesy Cortes Island Fire Department

“I’ve been a member of the Cortes Fire Department for a little over eight years. I’ve really enjoyed my time on the Fire Department,  I think that it’s great to be able to serve the community,” he explained.

“ Fire Departments in British Columbia can operate at one of three levels. There are Exterior Firefighting Departments, Interior Firefighting Departments, and Full Service Departments. Most departments in small rural communities are Exterior Operations Fire Departments, which has always been the case for Cortes.” 

“Under our Contract with the Strathcona Regional District (SRD), we are not required to train for or go into burning buildings. Our Department is not supposed to be required to go into a burning building.  We can go into a building where there’s been a kitchen fire, a chimney fire, or we can go in and check for extensions into attic spaces, and so on.”

“That is our contracted service level, but it doesn’t say that if we are properly trained and equipped we can’t enter burning buildings. To the extent that we have the volunteers who are committed to the training and we have the proper equipment, we can choose to provide interior services on a case by case basis.”

“We have a goal of training members who are able to commit the time and effort to the point where in the future we would have enough trained members to conduct interior operations if we had to. But it’s a fairly advanced level compared to exterior operations and is not a service that this department has previously offered that I’m aware of.” 

Q/Are you also equipped to respond to something like a gas station fire?

“Obviously you’re not going to be in the area where fuel tanks are burning because there’s setbacks that you need to maintain around  a fuel tank, for instance. Regardless of your training level, you have to stay at a safe distance.  A gas station is an outdoor environment, so it doesn’t really enter into the question of whether you are interior or exterior. We are a small department and a gas station fire could be something that we would require extra resources for, of one kind or another. There’s no question that we would do everything we could in the case of a gas station fire, as with any other fire on the island.”

The Cortes Island Fire Protection Service Area does not extend throughout the island. The less populated northern portion of Cortes, Tiber Bay, the southern shore of Gorge Harbour and the tip of Sutil Point are all outside of it. So are the Klahoose and Tla’amin First Nation lands, which have their own local governments. 

“We also will respond to wildfires within our area and also wildfires outside of our fire protection district. For those, we need to be assigned that task by the BC Wildfire Service,” said McKenty.

The Cortes Island Fire Service Protection Area (established 1990) – courtesy SRD

“ Our basic mandate is to protect life, property, and the environment and to fight fires in our community. There are a bunch of additional services beyond just responding to house fires, such as assisting with rescues and we get dispatched to all motor vehicle accidents. We take care of the extrication side of vehicle accidents as well as fire suppression.”

“We also assist BC Ambulance, when requested, with medical calls. There are a lot of houses on the island that have tricky access, long staircases, or where it’s going to take more than the two ambulance attendants to get a patient to the ambulance.”

“The First Responder Program is something that I’ve been quite passionate about for years, and it’s been a shockingly slow process.  As it stands, we can assist BC ambulance for medical calls under their direction. A medical first responder department, which is what we are still working towards, would be dispatched alongside BC Ambulance.  We wouldn’t be waiting for ambulance to request our assistance, but for certain calls we would be going out at the same time as them. If there were a call in the south end of the island at night and the ambulance attendents had to come from Whaletown, there would be a chance that the Fire Department might arrive ahead of them and be able to begin assessing and stabilizing the situation. According to the Regional District, this has to be a separate service from the fire service, which is why there was a separate tax proposed and instituted for that.” 

“We were hoping to have the service launched this summer. Due to complications and the staffing turnover that has yet to occur, it’s still at the top of my list to finally launch the service.”  

“I’m actually also on the ambulance crew as a driver and assistant. I’ve been to a lot of calls that way.” 

“This is something that I’ve been interested in for a long time. Years ago, I had a table at the Friday Market and somebody had a substantial seizure right in front of my table. That was when I realized that I wanted to take medical training, so I would know what to do in circumstances like that.” 

“I took some courses, did some training and then I realized that you actually have to use it. You can take all the training, but unless you have the hands on experience, you’re not going to be confident in your skills when it counts.”

“That was when I started considering joining ambulance and I was considering joining the fire department at the same time.  I ended up deciding to join ambulance, then somebody twisted my arm and I joined fire as well. It’s challenging being on medical calls, doing your best to alleviate the suffering and help people. It’s a challenging job, and ambulance also has to be a calling. It’s not really a career for what they pay. I am honoured to be one of the people that steps into that role when needed.” 

Command Vehicle #1 – Courtesy Cortes Island Fire Department

“I’ve stepped forward to fill roles as required. I’ve never really imagined having a fire service career, but I step up when needed and it’s a great crew we have. That’s always been a good work environment, more or less. Becoming Fire Chief was quite unexpected. I had previously been approached about it, before the department hired Dave Ives, and it wasn’t something that I felt called to do.” 

“It’s a big responsibility. You’re quite tied down in the position because it’s a lot of duty shifts. The way our department works is there’s always one person who’s the Duty Officer and typically the Chief fills the bulk of the Duty Officer shifts. Whoever’s the Duty Officer is obliged to be prepared to respond within five minutes in the command truck or another vehicle if required, so it’s quite limiting as far as boating, hiking, town trips, and all the other things that one might like to do.”

“Beyond the Duty Officer, the fire department is entirely volunteers. The Duty Officer responds and coordinates the rest of the volunteers who are available at that particular time.” 

“Our Department really depends on volunteers and people being willing to commit quite a substantial amount of time and effort to training and then being willing to carry the radio and be ready to respond day or night to whatever comes up. We are really a volunteer department. It’s the community stepping up to protect and serve the community.” 

Q/What’s a typical day like? 

“We have fairly low call volumes. I don’t have the numbers at my fingertip, but I think it tends to be around 30 or 40 calls a year. Many of them only involve the Duty Officers. Anytime there is a medivac helicopter landing, the Duty Officer will ensure that the helipad is clear of dogs, deer and whatever, and help with the patient transfer and so on. There’s also investigations. If somebody sees or smells smoke in the summer, we’ll get a call and investigate reports of campfires, burn piles, when the burn ban is on, and all that kind of stuff.”

“There are a lot of calls that don’t involve the whole department. We get a number of false alarms where we’ll get a call for a motor vehicle accident quite often and find that the car is in the ditch, but the person has gone home and there’s nothing really to do other than put tape on it to indicate we’ve been there. Downed Hydro lines is another common call.”

Firefighters wear SCBA cylinders (left, above) to protect them from the toxic smoke at vehicle and structure fires. The breathable air compressor above in the Mansons Fire Hall – Photo by Roy L Hales

“Then there’s the calls that do involve the whole department. We do get real fires.  Fortunately we don’t get too many house fires on the island.  This is one of the things about a small rural fire department in a community where  I know a lot of the people who live here. So anytime the pager goes off,  it’s quite likely somebody that you know.” 

“Over the last number of years we’ve been so lucky as far as brush fires and wildfires on the island. It seems like even in dry summers past, most of them have coincidentally occurred a day after the one rain of the month or something like that.” 

“We keep getting lucky on that front, but we’re very aware of the wildfire risk here and it’s nice to see all of the initiatives around FireSmart neighbourhoods, the brush chipping initiatives and just the growing awareness of wildfire risk. It  is really encouraging to see.”

“We practice Tuesday nights, from 7 until 9, every week.  People go through a basic training regime of all the required firefighting skills. Then we just continue working through skills and scenarios throughout the year in order that we remain. We’ll also run weekend courses for things like auto extrication, rope rescue or medical training.”  

“There are occasionally off-island courses. There’s a live fire course in Comox that many of our members have gone to where you actually do get to go into burning buildings and put out fires and so on, which is quite an exciting piece of training.” 

 “The Duty Officer will have the command truck with them and all of their gear in it. They’re required to respond to a call within five minutes, day or night. The rest of the firefighters will respond in their own vehicles to their hall, whether it be hall 1 (Whaletown) or hall 2 (Mansons Landing), get kitted out, and then roll out  in the trucks as appropriate to the call.”

“ All of our members have a full set of turnout gear and the new recruits and rookie firefighters will have older gear. As people have become fully trained and demonstrated their commitment to being on the department, then we order custom brand new turnout gear for them.  It’s quite a significant expense, so we wait until people have gone through the full training period and demonstrated their commitment to being on the department.” 

There’s a sense in which you could call McKenty a modern Minuteman, for that’s how long it takes him to change from his civilian clothes into a fully geared up fireman. If I remember correctly, he said firefighters have up to two minutes.   

  “On the Chief’s side, it’s always been technically a part-time position where the Chief is the Duty Officer much of the time. He will spend a day or two a week in the office doing paperwork, administration, making sure that all of our gear is up to date and ordering textbooks, turnout gear and all that kind of stuff. Since I took over a couple of weeks ago, I think it’s been more like 40 to 50 hours a week in the office. Most days, I’ve been learning the ropes, making sure that we have all our ducks in a row and all the paperwork there, etc, etc.  It’s been a fairly full-time position since I took over, but hopefully once things settle down and we’re back into a routine, it’ll go back to being at least maybe a halftime position instead of a full-time position.” 

Cortes Island Fire Department volunteers
Some of the volunteers undergoing training in 2021 – courtesy Cortes Island Fire Department

Q/How do people join the fire department?   

 “We take on volunteers once a year in September, but we’re always looking for people who would like to join the department,  become firefighters and first responders.  It’s a great gig, very rewarding,  lots of interesting training and camaraderie, and you’re able to be there when it counts for people.” 

“The level of service we offer and the level of training we achieve, all depends on volunteers. The training is paid for by the department, but  the time is volunteered by the members. There’s a very small training stipend at the end of the year, which is intended to cover the cost of gas, getting to and from training and so on.” 

“There’s actually lots of useful training available. The courses and so on are paid for by the department, so you can get the core firefighter training, medical training and an airbrakes ticket. There are weekend training opportunities for auto extrication,  rope rescue and all these kind of things, which are generally quite well attended. There’s actually lots of useful training available, paid for by the department to the volunteers who are willing to put their time in.” 

Engine 202 – 2013 Freightliner 1050 GPM pump and 1000 gallon tank – Courtesy Cortes Island Fire Department

“I encourage people to get in touch and, we can put your name down and get in touch when we’re doing our next recruiting round.”

Contact Information:

  • Cortes Island Fire Fighting Association (CIFFA)
  • #2 – 959 Beasley Road
    Manson’s Landing, BC
    V0P 1K0
  • Phone: 250 935-6779
  • Email: cortesfire@telus.net

Top image credit: During a quick tour of the firehall, Eli McKenty points to the yellow (either interior or exterior) and red (exterior only) fire fighting gear- Photo by Roy L Hales

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