Commissioner Bill Meursing querying fire chief Nick Kiniski, right. Photo by Meg Olson
Point Roberts fire commissioners have begun a series of work sessions to thoroughly review department operations and confront staffing challenges.
“There’s a disconnect between the fire department and the fire commissioners right now,” said commission chair David Gellatly. “We’ve gone through so much change.”
After voters approved a substantial increase in the fire district’s tax levy in 2010, the department has been working to fulfill promises to upgrade equipment and facilities, improve response times and improve the ability to respond to medical emergencies. The district set up reserve funds to keep equipment and facilities up to date. They have also established a weekend sleeper program, with volunteers staying at the fire station on weekends. While training facilities have been improved, the most significant uptick in training has been fire chief Nick Kiniski’s certification as a paramedic.
“We took a step because an opportunity presented itself,” Gellatly said. “Now other areas are starting to lag. We’re losing emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and we aren’t replacing them. Emergency medical service (EMS) is the area we’re concerned about.”
At their May 21 work session commissioners reviewed departmental organization: Kiniski as chief, Chris Carleton as assistant chief, six captains and an additional 21 firefighters. Of these, Carleton, on the Point intermittently, and Kiniski are paramedics, and there are seven EMTs with the department, following the retirement of Fred DeHaan and former chief Bill Skinner’s decision not to maintain his EMT training. In addition, Deb Shields is no longer responding to calls, and has written a lengthy letter to commissioners critical of the district’s management. “We are getting at a critical level with EMTs,” Kiniski said.
Twelve members of the fire department live out of the response area, which includes Tsawwassen and Point Roberts, and do not carry pagers, responding only when they are in Point Roberts for weekend duty. Captains are paid $300 and firefighters $72 for a weekend shift from Friday to Sunday evening.
Kiniski said these firefighters come to the department with substantial training and the department only provides them with additional in-house training and experience responding to calls. Captain Joe Gary said most of these firefighters last a year or less with the department. “Some people have been here as little as a month,” he said, before being hired across the border as full-time firefighters. “With baby boomers retiring, those Lower Mainland departments are eating us alive,” Kiniski added.
A drawback to hiring Canadian firefighters on a career track, Kiniski admitted, was this rapid turnover, especially at the more highly trained captain level. “It seems to be a rotation of captains in and out,” he said. “Unfortunately that’s how we do it here,” Meursing said.
Kiniski agreed it was unfortunate that the department didn’t have enough local responders to provide the level of service the community needed, but said he had very limited response to efforts to recruit locally due to the burden of training requirements, especially for EMTs.
“If I could snap my fingers and have an EMT class here I don’t think we’d have anyone,” he said. With training requirements rising and an aging population, Kiniski said this represented a challenge faced by all volunteer fire departments.
Commissioners agreed. “The ability to have volunteers responding from home is not what it should be and that will probably continue,” Gellatly said. “What can we do without having a fully paid department that will burden taxpayers?”
Gellatly asked that a detailed cost analysis of the per call cost of the weekend sleeper program be prepared for their next work session on June 11 at the fire station. “We’re trying to apply that cost to a potential weekday sleeper program and see if that’s feasible,” said commissioner Stan Riffle.
Commissioners also asked that Kiniski present written standard operating procedures for the areas of department structure, including duties of the chief, assistant chief, captains, EMTs and firefighters.
Gellatly said he was encouraged by the dozen firefighters and community members who attended the meeting. While commissioners are not taking public comment during work sessions in an effort to keep them concise, Gellatly said they welcomed feedback on their deliberations, either in writing or during regular meetings.
He added they would continue to focus on solutions to spotty response capability. “This comes from some attrition in the department I don’t think we were prepared for,” he said. “We’re not doing this to create controversy or a crisis but to avert one.”