This is going to be an article about fire service funding, or the lack of it. If you are easily distracted, don’t read the title and start spouting off. There is ALWAYS more to the story than just your perspective. Â Tragedy doesn’t begin to describe this situation, but in Saskatchewan a few days ago, two toddlers died when their home burned. Â I first read the article the other day in the Winnipeg Sun and then, of course, read the over-the-top emotion from firefighters who claim dishonor and a lack of integrity inÂ anyone that doesn’t happen to conform to their own personal belief in the way things work.
Let’s consider the background information: The incidentÂ occurred inÂ Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation (MSFN), where apparently, funds were allocated for fire protection. According to articles in GlobalNews CanadaÂ and TheÂ Canadian Press, the Reserve received $40,000 for fire protection this year. Â No, that’s not much, but let’s continue to look through this situation. Â According to one article, the Assembly of First Nations gets $26.3 million annually for fire protection services. The Assembly of First Nations is only one of the “aboriginal reserve” groups in Canada. According to that same article, “deaths from fires on First Nations reservesÂ (italics mine) are 10 times higher than in similar reserve communities”. Â Also of interest, “Local band councils manage fire protection services on reserve and prioritize spending according to their needs. Communities can divert funding meant for fire services to other areas that are more urgent.” Â I read in one of the articles that the money this year was spent on a day care, but I can’t find that article again.
The MSFNÂ apparently also has a fire truck, which is either in need of maintenance or isn’t, depending on whichÂ story you read.Â Â This article in CBC News shows the engine sitting in the snow, not looking very maintained. Â Several articles say thatÂ MSFN has a fire hall, to which I’m wondering why the fire truck isn’t IN the fire hall. Â I don’t know- still trying to find that out…in any case, the CBC News article shared this:
“AÂ source within the Assembly of First Nations, who agreed to speak with CBC News only on background, said there’s a problem with the overall infrastructure within communities. He said, for example, that often there isÂ not enough fuel on reserves to heat the fire halls, so fire trucks are in the cold in the wintertime and unable to respond to calls fast enough. There also mightÂ not beÂ adequate water infrastructure with the proper pressure to combat fires. Firefighting is done primarily by First Nation volunteers and in some case paid firefighters, according to the Aboriginal Affairs 2010 strategy. Communities can also share fire services with nearby towns with a mutual aid agreement, which was the case for the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation.”
So let’s look at that. According toÂ the GlobalNews article,Â the reserve previously had a contract with the community for volunteer fire services. The band paid an annual $5,000 fee, plus costs for each fire the department attended. Â InÂ October 2012, MSFNÂ Chief Richard Ben canceledÂ the contract, claiming this was too costly. SoÂ in January 2013, the nearby Village of Loon Lake sent MSFNÂ an agreement letter with a list of contractÂ service costs (here’s your “pay to spray”).Â For the remainder of 2013 and into 2014, MSFN paid the invoices, but stopped in Spring 2014.Â The Village sent lettersÂ about the situationÂ andÂ ultimately, MSFN’s accountant confirmed there would be no more payments.Â Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation’s leadersÂ elected to stop paying the bills. Thus the problem: When you are told, “We will not be responding unless you pay for fire protection” andÂ you say, “Okay, we aren’t paying”, that’s a pretty hard line in the sand. It means you are gambling that someone is going to just come anyway. Â If you are making that choice for your own family and property, that’s your choice. When community leaders play chicken over funding though, it is the vulnerable who pay.
When I was young and knew only my own perspective, I too couldn’t fathom not responding in one of these “pay to spray” scenarios. Â When I started having to pay the bills though, I realized that these choices aren’t made easily. Â I read Billy Goldfeder/Nozzlehead’s article in Fire Rescue magazine last month about communities that rely on “moochual aid”. I know what it is like toÂ dealÂ with unreasonable individuals who think government spending is all about waste. I have also had to work hard to convinceÂ politiciansÂ who want disasterÂ response assets that to do that, we have to pay to fuel the trucks and pay to heat the buildings andÂ pay the Workers Comp premiums.
If this was a perfect world and I could just tell someone to throw a few hundred feet of line on my engine and not have to worry about paying for it, I think that I would gladlyÂ respond to the station and take that engine to help anyone who needed it. Â That’s being a volunteer and you know what- that works fine. Â But while being a volunteer means YOU aren’t necessarily getting paid, we still have to put gear on your back and helmets on your heads. Â We still have to buyÂ radios, and we need to buy badges, and everything else. It’s simply not free.
There is nothing fair for the two toddlers in these decisions. Â I don’t know if there were working smoke detectors. I don’t know what the fire cause was. But I do realize this, given the facts I read: If the community really cared about the situation,Â there would have beenÂ help.Â For anyone to blame the Fire Chief in Loon Lake is out of line. Â The individuals who deserve blame here are those who chose to permit a fire engine to fall into disrepair. Those who choseÂ to allocate only $40,000 to a fire district in a community where fire loss is so extraordinarily high. Those whoÂ permit buildings to be built without codes or code enforcement. Or those leaders who had a fire protection contract and canceled it, knowing all these facts.
Instead of being angry about the dilemma, maybe individuals should take positive action to fix the problem. Maybe this is time to say, “We need to fix our engine.” Or “We need to volunteer.” Or “We need to make sure we pay our contract.” Or even better, “We need to make sure everyone has working smoke detectors and an exit plan.” Â For the angry firefighters, maybe you should get off your high horse and go ask your chief how much it costs to run a fire department. You should also spend some time helping your chief justify a budget to a bunch of people who think any money is too much for fire protection. And if IÂ lived in a community where IÂ relied on a contract fire department, I’d make sure I maintained my contract. I’d probably also volunteer my time in the hopes that if I needed help, the rest of the community would be there as well. Â But for individualsÂ to stand around pointing fingers and blaming, perhaps there should be a little more reflection instead.