Pemberton's volunteer fire department facing heavy workload 

Callouts for the 2018 third quarter up significantly over previous year

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOEL BARDE - Trending up VOP fire chief Robert Grossman discussed the increase in call volume facing the Village's volunteer fire deparment at a Nov. 27 council meeting.
  • Photo by Joel Barde
  • Trending up VOP fire chief Robert Grossman discussed the increase in call volume facing the Village's volunteer fire deparment at a Nov. 27 council meeting.

The Village of Pemberton's (VOP) volunteer fire department is grappling with a significant increase in call volume.

In the third quarter of 2018, the department responded to 137 callouts. That compares to 94 in 2017, 85 in 2016, 81 in 2015, and 75 in 2014.

"We've had a busy, active third quarter compared to the last two," said fire chief Robert Grossman at a Nov. 27 VOP regular council meeting.

The majority of the callouts were for medical assistance (79), with motor-vehicle accidents accounting for the second-most responses (18 callouts).

Members of the department often accompany ambulance services to medical calls in order to provide assistance.

The fire department provides service for the VOP, Pemberton Meadows, Pemberton Heights, as well as Mount Currie.

In addition, the department provides road-rescue service to the entire Squamish-Lillooet Regional District Area C, an area that covers over 5,500 square kilometres.

Grossman noted that several years ago, the department worked out a system with ambulance services to reclassify the type of medical incidents the department is responding to, thereby ferreting out minor medical issues.

Despite the change, the department is now responding to more calls than ever.

"We used to get called out for everything," said Grossman. "And now we're getting called out to really serious calls, and when (the) ambulance is delayed."  

Grossman believes the trend is a reflection of Pemberton's changing demographics.

A greater number of older people are moving into their community, often into their children's homes, he explained. "As the community gets older, we're going to see more and more calls."  

In his presentation, Grossman painted a picture of a volunteer fire department stretched thin, grappling with a heavy workload in addition to their regular 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. jobs.

By the end of the third quarter, department members had committed 328 hours for incidents and 319 for training, which amounts to a grand total of 647 hours of work.

And in order for the VOP to meet its insurance rating, the department needs a fire officer on duty 24 hours a day.

That means it effectively needs to schedule 5,700 additional on-call hours among five officers for the times when Grossman is not on call.

The department currently has 21 members, which is down from 25, with two members on leave. Moreover, as with most volunteer organizations, much of the department's work is being carried out by a core group.

"Out of the 21, we're getting 10 people who respond most of the time," said Grossman. "Those 10 people are doing it out of dedication to helping the community, and it's burning (them) out.

"It's become quite a tough go ... We're getting a little burned out—but we're still doing it."

In a follow-up interview, VOP Mayor Mike Richman stressed the gratitude the VOP has for its volunteer fire department and voiced concern about burnout.

"I am concerned," he said. "We have a volunteer fire department and, as the area grows—not just with traffic and tourism, but as it grows in population—it's putting a lot of pressure on our firefighters to respond."

The amount of work also "makes it tougher to recruit," noted Richman. (At the end of the third quarter, the department had received nine applications to join the department for the year.)

Richman said that the VOP has had some success lobbying the province on the issue, resulting in more ambulance staffing and the reclassification of what fire services responds to.

He noted, however, that it costs the Village money every time the fire department responds to a call.

When asked for information on the costs, a spokesperson for the VOP was unable to provide figures. "The costs really vary, depending on the type of call it is," wrote Jill Brooksbank, senior communications and grants coordinator for the VOP, in an email. "We recognize this is valuable data and will be conducting an analysis in the near future."

According to Richman, if the trend continues, it may be up to small communities like Pemberton to band together and collectively press the province for more support.

"If (call volume) continues to go up, I think that small communities need to look to the province and say, 'Hey, how can you help with this,'" said Richman, adding that the VOP may also have to look at adding more paid members.

"We might have to look, over time, if we have to add more paid members to that service," he said.

"Again, that's a cost to our residents, but it's something we could potentially have to look at in the near future."


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