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Busy winter for fire services

Highway accident calls above normal, more firefighters needed

By Andrew Mitchell

It’s been a busy winter for Whistler Fire Services, with crews responding to every medical and highway emergency in the region the past few months, including a series of serious highway accidents during periods of snowfall.

Under new procedures brought in two years ago, fire departments are designated as first responders in emergencies, and are dispatched to sites of accidents and medical emergencies. Paramedics and police are dispatched when required.

The last few years have been fairly quiet, according to fire chief Rob Whitton, leading up to a high number of calls this past winter.

“Our response for the highway is from the old salt shed site north of Squamish to the Green River crossing towards Pemberton, and to any accident in that area we provide first response,” said Whitton, adding that Whistler Fire Services can reclaim a portion of their costs through the Provincial Emergency Program when answering calls outside of municipal boundaries. Other costs are funded by the Resort Municipality of Whistler.

Whitton says they are keeping track of calls answered, but have not run any figures yet on the winter season.

“But just the volume of calls we’re received in December, January and February, is probably fairly significant given the kind of weather we’re having that we haven’t seen in the past few years. Weather conditions have stayed worse for longer and at specific times, and the call volume is definitely up a bit during those times… but over time it may balance out through the year, say if we have fewer calls in the spring.”

The municipal budget already covers the cost of career firefighters, and includes allotted work hours for Whistler’s paid on call firefighters. The career crews are generally first on an accident scene, then they call in the paid on call firefighters when they require additional assistance. Whitton says the fire department has been using their paid on call crew fairly often during accidents, but doesn’t expect to see any impact on the budget once the numbers are spread out over the rest of the year.

However, with the number of calls he is concerned by the number of paid on call firefighters working with the department. Whistler Fire Services has been advertising for new people since the start of the winter season, but they have not been able to replace all the personnel that left.

“Right now we’re down to about 40 paid on call, and our maximum number is 60,” he said. “We seem to lose maybe 25 per cent every year, which is just the nature of the job and the town. Some are here for a year or two and move on, or find they’re not getting hired full-time at any great speed and move on to other departments that have openings.”

It’s difficult to replace lost workers, says Whitton, because of the qualifications required. Most have firefighter training, but additional first aid and driving certifications are needed.

“There are a couple of issues we’re dealing with and are a concern,” he said. “For example we need qualified driver operators for the fire vehicles. If a rash (of paid on call) people leave… it makes it difficult at times to have the personnel to drive vehicles to emergencies. The trucks are there but there’s nobody there to drive them until the right people show up.

“So far all our paid on call guys have been picking up the slack and doing a really good job pulling things off. Our response times are good, even with the weather and cars stuck on the road. We do have moments, but that’s the type of system we’re in and what we have to work with.”