Pay To Spray Redux

MSFN EngineThis 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.  Tragedy doesn’t begin to describe this situation, but in Saskatchewan a few days ago, two toddlers died when their home burned.  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 in anyone that doesn’t happen to conform to their own personal belief in the way things work.

Let’s consider the background information: The incident occurred in Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation (MSFN), where apparently, funds were allocated for fire protection. According to articles in GlobalNews Canada and The Canadian Press, the Reserve received $40,000 for fire protection this year.  No, that’s not much, but let’s continue to look through this situation.  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 reserves (italics mine) are 10 times higher than in similar reserve communities”.  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.”  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 MSFN apparently also has a fire truck, which is either in need of maintenance or isn’t, depending on which story you read.  This article in CBC News shows the engine sitting in the snow, not looking very maintained.  Several articles say that MSFN has a fire hall, to which I’m wondering why the fire truck isn’t IN the fire hall.  I don’t know- still trying to find that out…in any case, the CBC News article shared this:

“A 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 is 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 might not be 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 to the GlobalNews article, 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.  In October 2012, MSFN Chief Richard Ben canceled the contract, claiming this was too costly. So in January 2013, the nearby Village of Loon Lake sent MSFN an agreement letter with a list of contract service costs (here’s your “pay to spray”). For the remainder of 2013 and into 2014, MSFN paid the invoices, but stopped in Spring 2014. The Village sent letters about the situation and ultimately, MSFN’s accountant confirmed there would be no more payments. Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation’s leaders elected to stop paying the bills. Thus the problem: When you are told, “We will not be responding unless you pay for fire protection” and 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.  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.  When I started having to pay the bills though, I realized that these choices aren’t made easily.  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 to deal with unreasonable individuals who think government spending is all about waste. I have also had to work hard to convince politicians who want disaster response assets that to do that, we have to pay to fuel the trucks and pay to heat the buildings and 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 gladly respond to the station and take that engine to help anyone who needed it.  That’s being a volunteer and you know what- that works fine.  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.  We still have to buy 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.  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, there would have been help. For anyone to blame the Fire Chief in Loon Lake is out of line.  The individuals who deserve blame here are those who chose to permit a fire engine to fall into disrepair. Those who chose to allocate only $40,000 to a fire district in a community where fire loss is so extraordinarily high. Those who 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.”  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 I lived in a community where I 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.  But for individuals to stand around pointing fingers and blaming, perhaps there should be a little more reflection instead.

6 Comments

  • bill says:

    Well said. I am from Saskatchewan Canada. I am a career firefighter and I understand the issues with the fire protection on first nation land.

    Some facts I’ve heard for you to concider. The Fire Chief in Loon Lake is also the town mayor. The home did not have a functioning smoke detector.

    Management of first nations funds and fire protection have always been an issue.

  • Dan Entner says:

    I understand what your saying, But we are all trained to save life and property! I understand it takes money to run a fire service and I can also see that drawing that hard line in the sand is like sticking your middle finger up and saying yes youll come if call! Well yes I will come and save your life and property to the best of my ability because that’s why God put me here. But know this I will also follow up with the courts and let the law handle it. I will not just stand by and watch a house burn with ANYBODY IN IT, no matter what! Yes it will cost more in the long run and I might loose, but I will be able to sleep at night and when time comes I will be able to stand in front of God and say “yes I did all I could do! I will not call anyone that refuses to serve because of money my brother! No matter what kind of spin you put on this it is wrong to not run when someone needs help. What if this was your family, bet you would be spouting off like this if it were your family!

    • Dan Entner says:

      We all have a duty to act. If you do not respond when called upon you are negligent and should be charged wit a crime!

    • Mick Mayers says:

      Dan,

      There is no “spin” being put on this article. Please consider these two facts:

      1) Beginning with duty to act: While I am not familiar with Canadian laws, I would bet negligence is not that much differently defined as in the laws of the United States. Lake Loon Fire Department did not have a duty to act. Had there been a contract in force, there would have been. Since First Nation broke the contract, Lake Loon had no legal duty to act. If anyone had a duty to act, it was the leaders of First Nation, who have a legal responsibility for administration of the affairs of their community and negated the contract for fire protection.

      2) The Lake Loon Fire Department, according to the articles, did not stand by and watch the house burn with people in it. They never responded because they did not have a duty to act. Had they responded and did something that made the situation worse there might be cause for a claim of negligence. Worse, had they responded and someone had a fire in Lake Loon, they could have been charged with negligence because they had a duty to act in Lake Loon and NOT on the Reserve, and abandoned their responsibility.

      3) If I responded to “protect the subscribers next door” as happens in these contract scenarios sometimes and saw someone needing rescue and refused because of the absence of a contract, I concede some moral responsibility. Personally, in that event I would probably jump in and save them myself. That is one of those moral dilemmas that pop up from time to time. But regardless, they (nor I in this scenario) would have had a duty to act.

      Regardless, the articles stated that the RCMP arrived with the house well involved and the children already DOA. If Lake Loon would have responded, their actions would have been simply to sprinkle water on the remains of the building.

      I do not agree with “pay to spray” programs as we have come to call them. I think they set up the fire department for failure. The concept puts the onus of enforcing the contract on the people with the most to lose in a no-win argument – the firefighters- and lets the truly responsible individuals (the community leaders and the person expecting an unpaid service) off the hook. So I struggle with the emotion that you and others keep injecting into the argument.

      Let’s ask the bigger question: How would I feel if I lived in Lake Loon and my family died in a fire because the fire department I was supporting was off in another community fighting a fire without legal jurisdiction, mutual aid agreement, or any expectation of contract? Yes, I’d be spouting off right now.

      The point of my article was not to defend the situation. Lake Loon Fire Department made a really, really, really tough decision. I would be willing to bet you my paycheck that this decision did not come without a lot of regret. The reason I wrote the article was to point out that if you think that contract fire protection is a good deal, and some people in our country (and I’m not speaking for Canada here but for the U.S.) do think so, then that’s fine. But don’t opt out only to opt in when your house is on fire.

      Just like you can’t buy flood or storm insurance when there is a storm barreling down on you, as a citizen in this situation, you have to make a choice. I outlined them in the article and I stand by what I wrote. If you are in this situation, you’d better make it perfectly clear that the bills are paid, or you choose not to have fire service. If you want to make everyone have fire protection, then the time is NOW to insist on it, not after we are pulling two dead kids out of a burning home.

      That is where the crime exists- that the responsible individuals in a community declined fire protection, didn’t provide for it themselves, and then blame the neighbors when tragedy strikes.

      • Dan Entner says:

        Mick,
        I agree with everything you have said here! What I dot get is why is there an issue if Loon lake was not called upon to respond. What I am assuming here (yes I know what that means) Is Loon Lake was called out and refused. We see this two different ways here and yes in some ways I see your point. But, My point is if we are called we need to respond and figure it all out later. It is a shame that in this day and age there is a problem like this happening. I sincerely hope I have not offended you and I respect where your coming from, but we have two different opinions here. I am in no way defending the First Nation here, But I am not going to defend a decision to not respond when help is needed. I, just like you am from the US and have been in the Fire service 30 years and have trained and studied so others may live. What needs to happen here is the Law needs to investigate, The whole thing is a crime and a shame. It should of never happened.
        Thank you for your response, and Like I said before I hope I didn’t offend you.

        • Mick Mayers says:

          Hey, Dan-

          Not offended. Like I said, the issue I was trying to relate is that while we (you and I and many other firefighters) have a strong moral obligation to help others, we see this as being very wrong. I agree it is wrong. What would be nice is if community leaders learned a lesson and stopped putting the fire department in the position of having the be the bad guy. We’re fine-

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