The City of Victoria is pulling out of a 40-year-old mutual-aid agreement to provide fire service to Esquimalt, Saanich and Oak Bay over concerns that other municipalities are calling on Victoria more than it calls on them for help, at taxpayers’ expense.
Victoria’s mayor and fire chief both say the fire department is still willing to help its neighbours, but they want those neighbours to pay for it.
“I think it’s just fair that people pay for the service they’re using,” Mayor Lisa Helps said Friday.
Since 2016, Victoria Fire has assisted Oak Bay Fire 21 times and Esquimalt Fire three times, but has not called on those municipalities for help. Victoria Fire has assisted Saanich Fire four times and called on Saanich seven times.
The move to withdraw from the agreement rankled mayors from Esquimalt, Saanich and Oak Bay, who say they were blindsided by the decision.
“To be honest, we were surprised and I have to say a little bit disappointed,” said Saanich Mayor Fred Haynes, who said he expects a third-party mediator will have to get involved to sort out the dispute.
Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins said her municipality would not agree to pay Victoria Fire for services in Esquimalt, as mutual-aid agreements are driven by public safety.
“What I have heard from our staff is that we have no interest in doing a fee-for-service [model],” Desjardins said. “This is about being there for each other as required.”
Esquimalt has mutual-aid agreements with fire departments in Saanich, Oak Bay and View Royal, as well as the Department of National Defence, which covers CFB Esquimalt, and none are based on a fee-for-service model, Desjardins said.
In an Aug. 31 letter to the three mayors, Helps said the City of Victoria intends to pull out of the 1980 mutual-aid agreement within 120 days. Helps said she wants to develop a new agreement that’s based on a cost-recovery strategy that will allow fire departments to bill other departments if they provided mutual aid.
Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch said Oak Bay Fire, which has one engine truck, often calls on other fire departments for backup in case a fire gets out of control.
Murdoch speculated that Victoria has intentionally not called on its neighbours for mutual aid “just to make this point.”
“I’m not sure that serves the safety of the region,” he said.
Victoria Fire first raised the mutual-aid-agreement renewal in 2015, but since then, negotiations have stalled.
“For three years, they haven’t really come to the table, opened up the books and said: ‘Let’s have a look,’ ” Haynes said.
Helps admits that since 2015, the negotiations have “gone around in circles a little bit. Through everyone’s best efforts, it hasn’t been resolved.”
The breakdown in negotiations comes amid a backdrop of failed talks between Greater Victoria fire departments to establish a centralized dispatch service for fire calls. In 2018, Esquimalt, Colwood, View Royal, Sidney and North Saanich contracted with a dispatch service in Surrey after they balked at an increase in fees for Saanich’s fire dispatch centre.
Desjardins said Esquimalt offers important public-safety services to Victoria Fire, and could provide quick access to an emergency in Vic West if the community was somehow cut off via the Bay Street, Johnson Street or Craigflower bridges.
Victoria Fire Chief Paul Bruce said the fire department would never turn down a request for help — it just wants to be compensated when it does lend its services.
“If we’re going to provide firefighting service or rescue services to another municipality, it seems reasonable to me that those costs should be recouped,” he said. “I feel obligated to the taxpayers of Victoria that there should be some equitable compensation.”
Many fire departments on the Lower Mainland use a fee-for-service model, Bruce said. An an example, he said sending one engine with two firefighters would cost $250, which is reasonable for any fire department.
Helps said withdrawing from the agreement has nothing to do with “being good neighbours or bad neighbours.”
“It has to do with fairness and equity and making sure when we’re providing service, we’re compensated for it.”