After lengthy dispute, fire departments agree to help one another out in emergencies

After years of failed negotiations and jurisdictional squabbling, Victoria, Esquimalt, Saanich and Oak Bay fire departments have agreed to help each other out in the event of a major fire or emergency.

This comes after a 40-year-old mutual-aid contract fell apart when the City of Victoria warned it would pull out on Jan. 2 over concerns that other municipalities called on the Victoria Fire Department more than it calls on them.

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The Victoria Fire Department reached a mutual-aid and automatic-aid agreement with the Esquimalt Fire Department and a separate agreement with Saanich and Oak Bay fire departments. Victoria’s agreement with Saanich and Oak Bay includes a “cost recovery model” so that a fire department will be reimbursed for personnel and equipment costs if it provides service to another community for more than an hour.

Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins said the township’s mutual-aid agreement with Victoria does not include fee-for-service because Esquimalt largely relies on CFB Esquimalt Fire Services for backup.

The City of Victoria warned in September that as of Jan. 2 it would pull out of the mutual-aid agreement, which dates to 1980, with Esquimalt, Saanich and Oak Bay. At the time, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps called for a fee-for-service model that would see fire departments pay each time they call for backup. Since 2016, Victoria has assisted Oak Bay 21 times and Esquimalt three times, but has not called on those municipalities for help. Victoria has assisted Saanich four times and called on Saanich seven times.

Victoria’s move rankled mayors from Esquimalt, Saanich and Oak Bay, who said the City of Victoria was putting politics over public safety.

Victoria’s agreements with Esquimalt, Saanich and Oak Bay include mutual aid — which allows fire departments to ask neighbouring departments for backup if there are multiple fire or emergency calls — and automatic aid, which means the department will automatically send resources in case of a high-risk fire or certain types of emergencies.

Victoria Fire Chief Paul Bruce said an example of a high-priority automatic-aid incident would be a major fire at the Royal Jubilee Hospital or a senior’s care home where all available resources are needed for fire suppression and evacuation.

He said the cost recovery agreements with Saanich and Oak Bay are not to generate revenue but rather to recover costs if Victoria’s resources are in another community for a ­prolonged period.

Bruce did not have figures for how much a fire department would charge if its firefighters were in another community for a complex incident.

Oak Bay Mayor Kevin ­Murdoch said during negotiations, it was important that the cost recovery fee not be so high as to deter fire departments from asking each other for assistance.

“Victoria wanted to be sure they wouldn’t be on the hook for any significant response to a major incidents. And for Oak Bay we didn’t want the costs to be a barrier for asking for help,” he said. “That cost ­recovery is there for truly exceptional circumstances.”

Murdoch said the best ­outcome of the mutual-aid agreement between Victoria, Oak Bay and Saanich fire departments is that they’ll now start training together to ensure all firefighters use the same safety protocols.

Desjardins said she gives kudos to Esquimalt Fire Chief Chris Jancowski and to Bruce for coming together and recognizing the value of working together.

“It is extremely valuable to know you have that resource in your back pocket if you need it,” Desjardins said.

“Particularly for our two communities which exist on a bit of an island — Vic West and Esquimalt which are ­surrounded by water.”

Jancowski said in a statement that the Victoria-Esquimalt agreement gives the fire departments a framework that is responsive to the needs of both communities. “As a result of these improvements, we have immediate access to additional resources for large scale or complex emergencies.”

The Township of Esquimalt updated its mutual-aid agreements with Saanich and Oak Bay in 2016.

Victoria has been trying to re-negotiate the mutual-aid agreement since 2015 but talks stalled amid disagreements between municipalities.

Bruce said he believes the City of Victoria’s warning that it would pull out of the mutual-aid agreement on Jan. 2 pushed the four municipalities to work together.

“The potential gap in service from Jan. 2, that was concerning for other people,” Bruce said. “That was that kick in the rear end to get everybody going.”

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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