Penticton, B.C., firefighters are overworked and facing burnout; according to the Penticton Professional Firefighters Union.
The department currently has 36 staff on the payroll and the union president Curtis Gibbons said the need for additional firefighters is dire.
“Our guys are burnt out and tired and worn out. We’ve had a significant uptick in mental health issues that put people on leave,” said Gibbons.
“My fear is that we’re talking about old numbers and not utilizing the current data and the current obstacles that we face that impact our response here. We seem to always be playing catch up, instead of planning for an appropriate model that would grow with the community.”
Penticton fire said their trucks are just as busy as any engine company down in the Lower Mainland. And the department responds to a variety of complex calls from water rescues, cave, and high-angle cliff rescues on top of responding to fires and large incidents.
“We’re a small municipality that provides big city services,” said Gibbons.
“Over the last five to eight years, our call volume has increased significantly. Over the last couple of years, we’ve increased by a thousand calls.”
And with the added pressure of the opioid crisis, Gibbons added that resources are stretched thin.
“We’re a lot busier with medical calls. We’re dealing with the opioid crisis, boots on the ground. We’re going to multiple overdoses a day,” he said.
Public safety seems to be at the forefront of the current municipal election, but Gibbons believes it’s missing a key aspect.
“I don’t want to be critical of other departments in the city and what they need but I want to raise awareness about our staffing and the importance of it,” said Gibbons.
“Everybody is talking about public safety but fire has been less talked about in relation to public safety and it is a big piece of it.”
In 2021, the City of Penticton conducted a $75,000 community safety review that looked at RCMP, bylaw, and fire operations and how to allocate resources to meet the demand.
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That review was supposed to be finished earlier this year.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Penticton Mayor John Vassilaki.
“We were supposed to have it by May of this year, and unfortunately, with time restraints and those two professors that we hired to put the issue forward, they haven’t completed for whatever reason.”
Meanwhile, Penticton fire chief Larry Watkinson says they are working on a plan that will hopefully meet staffing goals within three years.
“Typically, we maintain the minimum staffing levels or three firefighters on each apparatus. So, on shift we maintain a minimum six firefighters,” said Watkinson.
“We’re working towards the goal of having four firefighters on each truck. It’s been a plan that has been put in place and we’ve been hiring firefighters. We’re getting there progressively each year with mayor and council.”
However, Watkinson and Gibbons agree that it’s a tough balance between tax dollars and the necessary resources.
“I understand the importance of doing this systematically to make sure we are not impacting the city’s tax base in a negative way. But we also need to maintain the growth of our fire department with the growth of our community,” said Gibbons.
“Based on the city’s numbers, the average person in Penticton pays 82 cents a day for the fire service which is less than a cup of coffee a day. What you get for that 82 cents a day is a tremendous benefit to the community.”
This issue isn’t unique to Penticton. Back in July, the Kelowna Professional Firefighters Association (KPA) said they are being stretched too thin.
In a letter posted to social media, KPFA president Jason Picklyk said the Kelowna Fire Department responded to an apartment fire with 23 on-duty members.
By standards, they should’ve had 28 firefighters on the scene within eight minutes of notification.
“We don’t have enough firefighters on scene to make entry and that’s how it tied in with Kelowna’s letter. Kelowna is looking for staffing to be able to effectively respond to high-rise fires,” said Gibbons.
“Their high-rise buildings are obviously a lot taller than ours here in Penticton, but we do have high-rise structures here, and arriving with only six firefighters really limits what we can do for any type of fire.”
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