The firefighters union is calling on the District of Kitimat to increase staffing, saying the current level puts people at risk locally because of an increasing call volume.
“Too often you see changes happen only after there has been a tragedy,” said Justin Medeiros, president of the Kitimat Firefighters Association.. “Council needs to take immediate action before it’s too late.”
Based on current activity, he said requests for service will hit approximately 3,200 calls this year and that’s enough to require 40 firefighters.
The union and the District of Kitimat are in contract talks for a new collective agreement.
There is an agreement between the District of Kitimat and BCEHS that sees crews from Kitimat be called to help outside of the community.
“We operate as a contractor for BC Ambulance, we currently have two ambulances that could be dispatched anywhere in the region,” said Fire Chief Trent Bossence.
The current staffing level is 23 with recruitment underway to fill another three positions and the District of Kitimat has given its approval for an additional three positions which would make for 29 firefighters provided all vacancies can be filled.
The regular hourly wage now for a firefighter starts at $31.58 and tops out at $56.14 at a captain’s rate.
“The majority of our calls are within the District of Kitimat and the Haisla Nation, but we also support inter-hospital transfers and cross-coverage in Terrace and area,” said Bossence of the contractual agreement with BC Emergency Services that can take personnel out of the community.
Last year, Kitimat Fire and Rescue responded to 2587 calls, with 185 for fires, 25 for rescues rescue and 2,372 were medical. Approximately 700 calls were outside of the community with the majority being to Terrace for inter-hospital transfers. There are two ambulances in Kitimat that can be dispatched anywhere in the region.
A shift at the fire hall has five firefighter/paramedics on duty with one shift having six. Depending on leaves and vacations that number can drop down to four or at a minimum three. An ambulance call requires a minimum of two paramedics while a large structure fire will require all available staff.
Bossence says recruitment is ongoing and applications are coming from across Canada.
“As a dual service hall [fire and paramedic] we have a unique opportunity to recruit prospective employees looking to work in both capacities,” he said.
As recently as March of this year local Kitimat resident Mitchell Jones shared his story of trying to get an ambulance for his wife who was having chest pains.
One evening, Jones’ wife began having bad chest pains and when he called 9-1-1, the operator gave him instructions, including trying to find aspirin.
“So I’m saying to my wife ‘oh don’t worry, everything’s fine. The ambulance is on the way.’ The operator corrected me and said no, it’s actually not on the way,” said Jones.
The operator said the only available unit is two and a half hours away, leaving Jones to take his wife to the hospital himself. Fortunately the issue was not heart-related and not life-threatening.
Jones estimates that from the beginning of the call to the time they arrived at the hospital roughly an hour had passed.
Leanne Gust had another experience, this one in 2017, in dealing with a paramedic shortage while trying to get ambulance service for her husband from Kitimat General Hospital to Mills Memorial Hospital in Terrace.
After her husband took ill, she took him to the Kitimat General ER only to be told he had appendicitis and that he required surgery in Terrace.
“But they said it would be faster to drive him as there were no ambulances available,” said Gust. “So we drove him and his appendix burst when he got to the hospital.”
Staff in Mills ER were ready and rushed him into surgery after which he had a long recovery.
“I was in tears and I was petrified, it’s a 45-minute drive and you’re telling us he has appendicitis and he has been ill for close to 20 hours,” she said. “It was going through my head of what do I do if something happens on the way there.”
Following her experience Gust hopes to see more people hired to help deal with the issue of available ambulances.
The District of Kitimat did not respond to a request for comment as collective bargaining is ongoing.