On April 7, a deadly fire tore through an apartment building at 843 Craigflower Rd., killing one woman.
Four fire departments rushed to the scene, and both the Esquimalt Fire Department and View Royal Fire Rescue used the extended ladders on their aerial fire trucks to rescue people trapped on the fourth floor.
One of these men was hard of hearing and physically disabled, but Esquimalt firefighters were able to get him down.
This almost didn’t happen, says Andrew Zado, president of the department’s union, the Esquimalt Fire Fighters Association. Zado says that inconsistent staffing levels at the Esquimalt Fire Department often limits the team’s ability to use their aerial vehicle.
“In the moments the rescue took place on the front side it was urgent,” Zado says. “His suite was filling with toxic smoke and there was fear it would ignite, as smoke is fuel… If we had to wait for the ladder from View Royal, which is the same as ours, then that smoke could have rendered him unconscious or worse, the suite could have caught fire.”
In order to fully utilize the aerial ladder, the team needs five firefighters on duty– four to take the fire engine, one to take the aerial truck, and all of them working collectively to use the two together.
There are 24 unionized suppression firefighters and three managerial firefighters at the Esquimalt Fire Department.
During evening shifts there must be six firefighters on duty. If someone is absent, another firefighter is called in to fill that role and may be paid overtime.
During the day there are also supposed to be six firefighters but because it’s a small team, most of the time someone is on vacation, dropping this number down to five. If someone is ill or absent on top of that then the team shrinks to four people. In that case, the chief or deputy chief will then step in as the fifth firefighter, a move Zado says isn’t enough.
“Everyday all day we’re working as a crew,” Zado says. “We train daily, we talk about the calls we go on and how we can be better. We are always learning how to improve and the chiefs are not part of those conversations because they have to get back to their administrative roles.”
In 2018 there were 100 days when one of the chiefs stepped in instead of calling in another suppression firefighter. What’s further frustrating for Zado is that in previous years, when the department was even more short-staffed, firefighters would be called in and accumulated over 500 hours of overtime each.
“Now, we aren’t advocating for overtime, we need our time off. What we are advocating for is proper staffing levels that allow us to bring the engine and ladder to every fire,” Zado says. “The biggest challenge that we face is we feel like we’re rolling the dice on the staffing model”
Fire Chief Chris Jancowski has heard Zado’s concerns, but does not agree that more back-fill to the day shift is necessary.
“All assistant chiefs and chiefs are trained as suppression firefighters too. Two of us teach fire officer programs so skill-wise, technically it’s the same or even greater,” Jancowski says.
He adds that the use of aerial ladder trucks rarely comes into play, and that in instances where they are used for rescue a ground ladder is often the better tool.
“Ground ladders are a quicker tool to deploy,” Jancowski says, adding that aerial ladders are often better in other municipalities which have more consistent road access to buildings, where Esquimalt largely consists of four to six-storey residential buildings with limited road access.
Jancowski adds that due to recent changes from the BC Ambulance’s dispatch services, in the last year emergency calls to the Esquimalt Fire Department have dropped by 30 per cent.
“Due to the drop in call volume it’s given our members the opportunity to work more in the community, working on education and preventative measures,” he says.
The Esquimalt Fire Department also holds mutual aid agreements with surrounding departments in case of emergencies; the first alarm bell will call to the CFB Esquimalt Department, the second goes to View Royal Fire Rescue and the third is to the Victoria Fire Department, all of which have ladder trucks, but not all of which have full-time staff.
In recent years the fire department also received a better score on its Fire Underwriter Survey, a national fire insurance grading system. In 2017 Esquimalt got rated a four on a scale where one is the absolute best and 10 is the worst. Previously, in 2o10, Esquimalt was rated a seven.
“For me it’s about understanding the return on investment,” Jancowski said. “I think for the size of our community, we’re doing exceptionally well.”
As a result of Jancowski’s stance there are no upcoming requests being forwarded to the Township of Esquimalt for a change in the staffing model.
This is where the department chief and its union’s president have reached an impasse.
“We’re not in the business of taking chances,” Zado says. “One could argue that on most days you don’t need the fire department to put out fires…Obviously no one takes that stance, so why are we taking that stance on the ladder truck and the resource that comes with it: the firefighters?”
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