B.C.’s smaller communities want a better solution for funding fire protection

·3 min read

A group of B.C. mayors is looking to collectively approach the province for funds as smaller municipalities are having a tough time sustaining the cost of fire service.

With the availability of fire services directly affecting insurance rates, municipal governments are compelled to have a fully functioning fire department in their communities.

But the cost dilemma is beginning to catch up to communities with smaller populations where these services can leave a million-dollar dent in their budgets.

From buying fire trucks and equipment to covering the cost of training exercises for volunteer firefighters, the local government is responsible for covering it all.

A new fire truck cost Port Hardy $1.2 million in 2018. The ongoing Cumberland fire hall project will cost $4.2 million. These are big ticket items for municipalities like Port Hardy with a population of 4,132 and Cumberland’s at 3,753.

Port Hardy’s mayor Dennis Dugas and Cumberland’s mayor Leslie Baird both said repeated requests for funding support has not resonated with the province.

“It’s a big hit on the taxpayers in a small community for just one piece of equipment,” said Dugas, adding that communities cannot afford to not have these services as the insurance rates would otherwise be extremely high.

Meanwhile, the cost of training volunteer firefighters can very quickly “eat up a large component” of municipalities’ budgets, said Port McNeill mayor Gaby Wickstrom.

The government lays down the mandates with respect to the shelf line of equipment/fire trucks as well as the requisite training for volunteers ( as prescribed in Structure Firefighters Competency and Training Playbook).

“The standards are set by the province, but the municipality’s ability to meet those standards are not supported,” said Coun. Sarah Fowler from Tahsis.

As the newly elected small communities representative at the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM), Fowler said that these are especially important issues that need to be addressed and can be an “antidote to rural shrinkage.”

These municipalities are looking for a permanent source of “fire-funding” from the province. Since 1990, the UBCM has endorsed several requests to address these issues before the provincial government. Most of these endorsements have been unsuccessful.

According to Dugas the province ought to pay smaller communities money from the B.C. Insurance Premium Tax (IPT) which he said was originally meant to fund fire services. The IPT in the province is currently at 4.4 per cent and extends to include automobile, property insurance and forest firefighting services among others.

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said that the revenue generated from the IPT goes into general revenue that supports all of the programs and services people rely on including healthcare and education.

“As this revenue can shift year to year, it may not match the fire service needs of B.C. communities,” said ministry spokesperson Marielle Tounsi.

The government also provides stable funding for programs like the Community Resiliency Investment Program that was introduced in 2018, said Tounsi. As part of this program, FireSmart Community funding is administered through the Union of BC Municipalities.

The most recent stream of Community Emergency Preparedness funding for volunteer and composite fire department was introduced by the province in May 2019.

Proponents, including First Nations communities, local governments and society-run departments, are able to apply for their share of $5 million to go towards equipment and training.

“The intent of this funding stream is to build the resiliency of volunteer and composite fire departments through the purchase of new or replacement equipment and to facilitate the delivery of training,” said Tounsi.

In addition, the Community Gaming Grants program provides funding to not-for-profit organizations that enhance and support the safety of the community through the Public Safety sector, including volunteer firefighting organizations. Applications for this sector are open annually between July 1 and Aug. 31.

Binny Paul, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Campbell River Mirror