Charlie Lake firefighter dispute heats up

The society that currently manages the Charlie Lake fire department insists that the fire department is in jeopardy unless they are able to maintain control of the service, including retaining the current fire chief.

Doug Allen, president of the Charlie Lake/Grand Haven Fire Protection Society, along with members of the volunteer fire department, appeared before the Peace River Regional District (PRRD) board of directors last Thursday to insist the regional district cease its takeover of the management of the fire service. Allan said the regional district has not taken into account the concerns of the firefighters about the new management structure and the implications to their safety, and that the community could lose those volunteers if the regional district continues with that direction.

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"Will there always be a fire department at Charlie Lake? It is up to this board to make that decision. We are prepared to do the job and do it well, and we would like to take it back, because we see nothing but problems if you continue with the direction that we are going at the moment," said Allen, who is a 32-year volunteer with the department and is currently a captain and safety officer.

He said the regional district staff has not been cooperating with the Society on the transition, citing the only communication he has had with the chief administrative officer has been via email. The main issue of the firefighters, however, was the regional district's decision not to retain the department's current fire chief, Al Pinkerton.

"Not employing the current chief would seriously affect the Charlie Lake Fire Department," said Allen. "Our chief is very important to us. If we do not have a consistent, efficient and constant chain of command, we are damaging the confidence of the volunteers in the job that they want to do, and in the leadership of this regional district."

He added the Society is working on the recommendations identified in the report submitted by the consulting firm of Dave Mitchell & Associates Ltd. last year, citing the establishment of an advisory committee made up of elected members of the community as an example.

"We are prepared, willing and able to continue to run the Charlie Lake fire department, with the assistant chief employed by the PRRD as our liaison person and as a member of the Charlie Lake fire department," said Allen, referring to the assistant fire chief the regional district hired in January in part to help with the management transition.

Dave Shipley, who has been a firefighter with the department for three years, said the regional district failed to meet its own commitments to include the volunteers in the process that would identify options for the future, communicate with them on action plans and processes and to communicate with the board of directors about the feelings of the volunteers firefighters about the decisions made by the regional district.

"When we talked about this last night, it was unanimous among all the volunteers that none of these three [commitments] had been met," said Shipley.

He echoed Allen's sentiment on the importance of maintaining the current fire chief.

"He has the 100 per cent support from his volunteers. We have already lost volunteers because of the way this has been handled. There is a lot of skeptical feelings that our safety is not being taken into consideration here."

He said the firefighters feel that cost-saving, and not the safety of the firefighters, is the primary concern for the regional district board.

"This is not a position where you have somebody walking in the door as he is walking out and say, 'this is your new guy, you are good to go.' How many of you would put your lives in the hands of somebody else who you don't know, who has not proven themselves, based on somebody else saying this person is qualified?" asked Shipley.

The regional district board voted last year to begin the transition process to assume administration of the fire department from the volunteer society beginning on April 1, 2012. The board did not indicate they would be reversing that decision in light of the fire department's concerns, but three of the newly-elected directors, who admitted they did not have all of the background regarding the situation, did state they were alarmed by those concerns and wished to investigate them further.

However, board chair Karen Goodings, who is an incumbent, said she was surprised by the Society's request to maintain control of the fire department, because she said it was the Society that suggested the transition of management last year.

In response to the presentation, chief administrative officer Fred Banham said if there has been a lack of communication between regional district staff and the Society, it has been due to a lack of cooperation from the Society.

"We've had face-to-face meetings with the Society in October, November and December, and in all of those meetings we had asked for some transition materials, and we've received nothing," said Banham. "It takes two to communicate. We've identified how to transition bills over and offered them input into budget, and we've received nothing. As much as they are not happy with us, I'm not really happy with how they have done it."

He added the lack of cooperation and hostility has resulted in the new assistant fire chief having to work out of an office in Fort St. John rather than at the fire hall.

Banham said the regional district is still in the interviewing process for a new fire chief. He said the district's Community Services department struck a committee of three people to review the 12 applications received, including from the current fire chief, and have since short-listed down to four candidates.

"He (Pinkerton) did not meet the shortlist," he said. "We're looking for the best qualified candidates, and he wasn't in our top selections."

He added the regional district gas undertaken an extensive study on what the market rate is for a fire department the size of Charlie Lake, and the number of calls for service it receives in a year, and he believes have put together a wage package that reflects the market value of the fire chief position.

© Copyright Alaska Highway News

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