Lantzville reviews options for fire service coverage

NANAIMO – District council orders governance report on how to replace outgoing chief Tom Whipps.

With Lantzville’s long-time volunteer fire chief set to retire, changes could be in store for the community department, from a new full-time chief to the contracting out of fire protection.

Lantzville politicians ordered a $5,000 governance review of its fire department to explore options on how to replace outgoing fire chief Tom Whipps, who plans to retire at the end of June after 37 years with Lantzville Fire Rescue and about 13 as its senior officer.

The review comes on the heels of new provincial training standards, which will require Lantzville to formally declare service levels and meet corresponding standards. Lantzville Fire Rescue trains as full-service but staying at that level will mean testing by an outside agency and increased training costs.

Whipps said he believes the community expects full service and would like to see the department reach a highly documented and qualified level, but he’s not willing to continue to put in time as a senior officer to get them there.

The trouble is no one else within the local service wants to fill those bootsn either – at least not the way the position stands today.

The vacancy has the district considering whether to stay with the status quo – a $12,000 a year volunteer fire chief position – hire a full-time or part-time senior officer, or contract out fire protection for up to $800,000. A governance review could yield other options.

“The members of the fire department are drawn from our existing community and if there is no individual within the community who is willing and able to fulfill the role in a fashion as has been done in the past, we certainly have to look at changes,” said Mayor Colin Haime. “That could include a part-time to full time chief’s position … or maybe a shared position depending what comes out of a review.”

Volunteer departments in central Vancouver Island like Parksville, Dashwood and Errington have already made the change to career fire chiefs. The senior officers there say they wouldn’t have had time as volunteers to do the work of a full-time chief, which requires more administrative work, responsibility and liability than it ever did before.

Nick Acciavatti, Dashwood fire chief, was hired in 2006 and makes about $70,000 a year. He did the job as a volunteer and said he wouldn’t recommend the position unless it was intended as a career, with obligations to train, keep records and maintain equipment.

“There’s far too much responsibility and there’s far too much liability with assuming the fire chief for any sized community,” he said.

Parksville fire chief Doug Banks, who became full time in 1992, made more than $118,000 in 2013.

The move to pay stemmed from the workload and the requirements of today’s service, including fire inspection paperwork and training, which Banks said can be overwhelming if you have a full-time job and volunteer at the fire hall.

“The administration, the training records and keeping up on everything – doing the budgeting, doing the purchasing – the list goes on and on and how much can you expect out of volunteers?” he said.

Coun. Jennifer Millbank, whose husband previously volunteered for Lantzville Fire Rescue, agreed expectations are heavy on administration and it’s unusual for someone to do it for $12,000 a year.

She’d like to see the district explore a senior officer role that combines duties currently contracted out, including  emergency preparedness and bylaw enforcement.

“If you could combine some of those with a chief, although you are adding a staff position, the increase in cost would hopefully not be as bad as just creating a brand new position out of thin air.”

Whatever is determined through a review, Whipps said he hopes firefighters have a say.

“I know they are not the ones signing the cheques, the politicians are, but nonetheless they should be heard,” he said.


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