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New Victoria fire hall already paying dividends, says fire chief

“It’s really an incredible improvement, not just to fire department operations, but really the ability to connect with the community and serve the community.”

Victoria’s new state-of-the-art fire hall and fire department headquarters is already proving to be much more than the sum of its parts.

While the rebar, concrete, steel and glass may have cost the city $35.9 million, the new building, which has been in use for a few weeks now, is already doing more than serving as the head office of the department, and storage facility for its gear.

Fire Chief Dan Atkinson said it’s also serving as a community builder.

“It’s really an incredible improvement, not just to fire department operations, but really the ability to connect with the community and serve the community,” said Atkinson, an unapologetic fan and enthusiastic advocate for the 40,000-square-foot facility at 1025 Johnson St.

“We’ve only been in this space now for a couple of weeks, and we’re already starting to see this happen. We’re seeing an increase in foot traffic, and then having the affordable housing component directly above us we’re seeing a lot more interaction between our members and the people that are occupying that housing facility,” he said. “We’re also really starting to see our members and our first responders feeling more connected to the community. And I think we’re seeing the converse as well.

“We’re also seeing the members that are occupying the space feeling a real connection to an emergency service that they may have felt disconnected from in the past.”

That connection has a lot to do with the thought put into the layout of the building, ensuring there are amenities for department members on shift as well as its location closer to the heart of the city.

Atkinson said the new ­facility might only be a few blocks west of the old fire hall at 1234 Yates St. but it’s worlds away as it feels like a bigger part of the ­community, while also being closer to where the demand is coming from these days.

He said call volumes have increased exponentially as the pandemic waned, far outpacing anything they saw pre-pandemic.

He said there’s no one reason for it, but rather a suite of factors ranging from the toxic drug epidemic, more people getting out and trying to live their lives and the changing face of the city.

“In Victoria, we’re seeing increased densification and increased highrises and anytime you pack more and more people into the same geographic area the needs for service start climbing exponentially as well,” he said, noting a new facility that is built to handle expansion of the department has come just in time.

Operationally, the new facility will allow the department to “right-size” its force and response to the community as both expand.

Atkinson said the facility includes features like accessible private spaces to ensure the needs of the people in the building are being met — private facilities, gender neutral washrooms and showering facilities as well as private spaces where members can decompress and recover following a call. There are also enhanced fitness facilities and the kinds of features Atkinson hopes will help attract and retain a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

“People will apply where they think they’re going to be most comfortable and most welcome and most valued,” he said.

The building is also home to eight storeys and 130 units of affordable housing operated by Pacifica Housing, and a storey of commercial space.

B.C. Emergency Health Services, which is leasing 3,200-square-feet for paramedics under a 20-year co-service agreement, occupies three storeys.

The fire hall and emergency centre are designed to withstand a massive earthquake and meet B.C. Building Code standards for buildings designed to remain operable following a disaster, giving it a seismic design load that is significantly higher than typical commercial buildings.

After an earthquake, the building — equipped with high-capacity backup generators — will be able to deliver emergency services.

The public safety building includes six bays for fire department apparatus, a decontamination room with a state-of-the art ventilation system, the city’s first purpose-built emergency operations centre and the department’s administration, prevention and training divisions.

The facility replaces the 26,700 square-foot headquarters on Yates Street, which has been in service since 1959. Atkinson said at this point that facility now houses the department’s historical society and its fleet maintenance division, though the city will have plans to redevelop the site at some point.

Higher towers in Victoria and increased density have forced the department to change its operational deployment model, and it has recently updated its highrise operations to reflect new building stock that surrounds the new facility.

“There’s a lot more work that needs to be done though. Anytime you have increased densification, taller structures that are more complex and more technical in nature, it requires more and more personnel to actively combat that,” he said. “So that’s an ongoing conversation. We’re continually assessing our resource needs and then making adjustments as needed.”

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