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Firefighters win in municipal budget

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The Whistler Fire Department got most of what it asked for in the municipality’s five-year financial plan, which was approved by council in May.

The highlights of the plan include $1.66 million for completion of the new Spring Creek firehall #3, $595,194 for a four-wheel drive fire engine – both of which should be ready in August – $275,000 for a compressed air foam system fire engine, and – over the next few years – $2.45 million for a new Alpine firehall #2.

The capital funding for the force is significant, recognizing the growth of Whistler while helping the Whistler Fire Department meet the service levels recommended in a 1998 study by the Insurers Advisory Organization.

One aspect of the fire department funding, located under operating costs, may be more significant than the new facilities and trucks, is $114,800 over two years for hiring a fourth assistant fire chief, bringing the total number of career firefighters to 19. As well, the budget includes $37,880 over two years for nine new paid-on-call firefighters, bring the total number to 60 – or 20 for each firehall.

During the 2002 municipal election, some firefighters suggested to candidates that some of the money being spent on the Spring Creek firehall, which was built to the highest sustainability standards at substantial extra cost, would be better spent hiring more full time firefighters. At that point there were only two to four full-time firefighters on duty at any given time, depending on holidays, illnesses and the time of day. The other firefighters are on call in case of emergencies.

"What we’re doing by hiring another assistant chief serves a number of purposes related to customer service," explains Whistler Fire Chief Bruce Hall.

"I know it sounds funning referring to someone whose building is on fire as a customer, but what we provide is a service to the community.

"Having another assistant chief on staff gives us another person on duty at all times, and a supervisor on duty 24 hours, around the clock. Whether it’s a fire or a motor vehicle accident, that provides us with a better level of response to the community."

Having another full-time firefighter on duty can also cut down response times, says Hall. For example, Workers’ Compensation Board regulations say that there have to be four firefighters at the scene before they are allowed to enter a burning building. Although most firefighters say they would probably go in anyway if lives are at stake, an extra on-duty firefighter gives the first members to arrive at the scene more confidence and support.

The fourth assistant fire chief position will also help to reduce stress on the other assistant chiefs. According to Hall, most assistant chiefs are on call at home, and often are woken up several times in an evening by calls. If it’s a minor incident, then they often stay at home and monitor the report by radio.

"That’s telling, especially when they have to come to work the next day. They’re tired and the next day their efficiency is not as good," says Hall.

In regards to the other items in the budget, Hall says the fire department is happy with the level of support.

The new fire engine was necessary because if the current truck is out of service for any reason, they don’t have a replacement, says Hall. The four-wheel drive truck was the preferred choice because of driving conditions in the winter, combined with the steep hills in many subdivisions.

The Spring Creek firehall will increase the level of response and capability to the southern end of town, replacing the old the Whistler Creek firehall which Hall says was "totally inadequate."

The current Alpine firehall does not have proper water access or sewage, and needs to be rebuilt says Hall. That project is expected to be completed in 2005.

"A sidebar to these new facilities is developing pride in the service itself, providing the proper firefighting apparatus, the proper facilities. To council’s credit, they have seen fit to recognize these needs and have taken steps in the five-year plan," says Hall.

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