Volunteer firefighters protect the valley — at half the cost


From Vaseux Lake to the U.S. border, the fewer than 60 volunteers of the Oliver and Osoyoos fire departments protect the southern Okanagan Valley.

osoyoos_firefighterBut the skilled and motivated firefighters are not only there when we need them, they do it at less than half of what it costs to provide services in a larger centre like Penticton.

“As long as we can keep doing it as a volunteer department, we’ll be able to save the community large dollars.,” Osoyoos fire chief Rick Jones said in a recent interview.

“If the day comes that we can’t maintain our volunteer status and we have to start hiring full time, it’s going to put a major hit on budgets.”

Oliver deputy chief Bob Graham agrees.

“I would say it would be a considerably more expensive proposition” if the town had to hire full-time firefighters,” he said.

By way of comparison:

  • Oliver’s fire budget is expected to be about $390,000 this year. With a town and rural population to protect of about 8,400, that’s roughly $46 per person per year.
  • Osoyoos is in the same ballpark. A fire protection budget of about $350,300 and a population around 7,000 translates to about $50 per person.
  • Penticton, by contrast, has mixture of full-time paid and volunteer firefighters and carries an annual budget of about $4.4 million. With about 40,000 people in its area, that’s about $110 each.

The Penticton department employs 32 full-time firefighters along with three chiefs and two fire inspectors. They work in conjunction with 40 volunteers.

Recently hired chief Larry Watkinson said in an interview that 90 per cent of the full-timers in Penticton emerge from the volunteer ranks.

Keeping staff a constant challenge

Graham and Jones both said that keeping their departments staffed with a complement of just under 30 men is an ongoing concern.

“There are limited employment opportunities in Oliver,” said Graham, “and so those people who might like to join (the department) can’t find work in town and often we have members who leave because there’s not work for them.”

Jones faces similar issues. “It’s very difficult if they don’t have a steady job.

“So I use every means possible. I even have high school students. They come here for the kind of job they want to do in their lifetime and do job experience programs with us.

“If they’re really interested, I get to (keep them) for a couple of years before they go to college or university,” said Jones.

Occasionally the training and success that young men enjoy as volunteers leads them out of the small town departments and into full-time firefighting jobs elsewhere.

“We’ve had five guys go full time,” said Jones, “picked off by other departments like Calgary, Cranbrook and West Kelowna.”

For the volunteers who make up the departments, the work offers an opportunity to give back to the community.

“A lot of young guys want to do something, but they don’t want to be a Lion and they don’t want to be an Elk. They don’t want to do Kinsmen,” said Jones.

“Or they can be a fireman and they can learn skills like truck driving and firefighting and … can also set themselves up for future jobs.”

Training is a key

Training is the backbone of a volunteer fire department. Both local crews get together once a week to train and practise, Wednesdays in Osoyoos and Thursdays in Oliver.

That training has become more onerous in the last two years with the implementation of the so-called fire commissioner’s playbook.

“It makes it very expensive, because it takes a lot more time to make sure you meet all these standards, because there are standards for everything,” said Jones.

“Standards for driving a truck, standards for pumping standards, for self-contained breathing apparatus, for clothing, for reporting an accident or a cut. It’s become a bureaucratic nightmare.”

Jones explained that many departments concentrate in training areas. “Other halls have other things they specialize in and we swap between halls. We have some of their guys and they have some of ours.”

Oliver has a developed a more self-contained model. “We have a training facility on the east side of the airport where we do all of our training,” said Graham “We have a facility for driver training, for live fire, for structure fires, for building rescues, car vehicle extractions. We have a total training facility.”

Road 22 in the boundary

Although the two departments often work together on larger fire events, the official dividing line is Road 22.

“We cover the valley from the south end of Vaseux Lake to Road 22 and the Osoyoos Indian Band for structure fires,” Graham said.

Osoyoos takes care of the area from Road 22 to the border and from the base of Richter Pass to the first switchback going up Anarchist.

As for road rescue operations, the two halls split Hwy. 97 at Road 22. Osoyoos handles Hwy. 3 from Nighthawk to the Rock Creek Canyon Bridge. Oliver looks after the road from Mount Baldy to Twin Lakes.

The departments are each primarily funded by their towns, with contributions coming from the Rural Fire Protection District and from the Osoyoos Indian Band.

The Oliver crew works out of its spacious hall, which opened in 2001, just off Main Street on Similkameen.

“It was designed primarily by the firemen,” said Graham. “The money was put aside over a number of years and it was paid for without financing at the time it was completed.”

The Osoyoos department hopes to move into its state-of-the-art new fire hall this fall. Construction began late last year and on 74 Avenue just west of Hwy. 97.

The town, the rural fire district and the OIB are paying for the $6-million capital project.

Town residents approved borrowing in a 2014 referendum. They will pay on average $40 a year per household for 30 years.







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