Lanark Highlands fire Chief Gene Richardson’s first mandate when he was hired in April 2019 was to pursue a master fire plan.
The 288-page fire plan has been met with a fiery response, mostly from White Lake residents, who are concerned about the “fire hall closing, increased taxes and reduced services.”
"They sent a letter around, which has a lot of falsehoods in it, just to rile people up and get them nervous,” Reeve Peter McLaren said, talking about flyers distributed by the Lanark Highlands Committee for Concerned Citizens.
"Read the plan; it’s not set in stone, and as we hit each step in that direction, we will decide what we’re going to do,” he added.
Chief administrative officer Ryan Morton echoed the reeve’s comments when he said, “what’s important for people to understand is that council passed the bylaw to adopt a plan. The plan does not give outright authority to the fire chief to execute all of those items. It’s a guide.”
Morton also addressed the tax increase: “The 10 per cent quote — that’s to keep five stations open. The numbers that are presented are life cycle costing; it has a different impact, a generality,” Morton said.
“Council is going to need more information. Just like when you buy a new fire truck — the type of fire truck you need, the specifications — you can spend a million dollars, or a half a million. It’s no different than building a new fire hall, all those things need a ‘deeper dive’,” Morton said.
Council is looking at three options. The first is to continue to operate all five stations. The plan states that this will be the most expensive option, as there will be significant building repairs and maintenance.
Reeve McLaren said that “we’re trying to put some numbers together for the three scenarios. If we stay with five halls, you’re talking a significant tax increase to maintain the trucks.”
The second option is to eliminate White Lake fire hall and amalgamate with Tatlock.
“The (White Lake) hall is non-compliant because there’s not enough volunteers. There’s rules and regulations we have to go by. The truck that’s there is also non-compliant, and the hall isn’t big enough,” the reeve said.
Dan White, who was a volunteer firefighter at White Lake for 15 years, has this to say to the fire chief: “I challenge him, where are the social media posts you are referring to? There was no campaign to recruit firefighters. What they didn’t tell us was that there are no positions to volunteer to."
“How can that be interpreted as anything but obstructionist in our fight to keep our fire hall open? Now we only have four (firefighters) — why do you think they left? They saw the writing on the wall, that this is a done deal,” White said.
Part of the challenge with the White Lake fire hall is its location. “In the event of a fire call, even if you have 10 firefighters, a firefighter has to drive from their house, down a dead end, six-kilometre road, turn around with the truck. That’s 12 kilometres total. There is no other access to it,” Richardson said.
The reeve insists that White Lake residents are covered even if the fire hall were to close. “We have an agreement with both McNab/Braeside and Mississippi Mills in Pakenham. They’re quite covered because of that. It’s not as bad as they’re letting on.”
White thinks that the proposed closure of the hall was predetermined. “Councillors and fire staff at township have not done due diligence in studying what the master plan suggested. They are putting White Lake residents’ lives at risk,” White said.
He said that White Lake is a part of Lanark Highlands Township that has a high population growth, “and yet they’re decreasing service in the area. It makes no sense,” White said.
“People are viewing it as losing a service. It’s not that we are insensitive to that notion; we support the community, we totally understand. When it comes down to dollars and cents, and number of calls, availability of firefighters, that’s where we have to engage the experts to come in and help us figure out the right thing to do,” Morton explained.
The third option is to amalgamate three fire halls and build a new central location, to be determined at a later date.
We travelled with the fire chief to see first-hand the deficiencies pointed out in the fire master plan. McDonalds Corners fire hall is too small for one of the newer fire trucks. A plywood floor covers the cistern (big tank of water on the floor of the firehall).
“Put yourself in the boots of a firefighter. When they back the truck up, they have to park the truck perfectly. If they go another two or three inches back, the truck will sink into the cistern,” Morton said.
“A lot of the reasoning and the justification, it is in the report. We didn’t buy a truck that can’t fit in the fire hall, we bought a truck that meets today’s standards. And today’s standards, those trucks don’t fit a 65-year-old firehall,” Morton added.
The fire hall is also located at the bottom of a blind hill. “It is a safety hazard,” Richardson said.
In Tatlock, the hall is not suitable for today’s fire hall standards, with no shower rooms, maintenance, training room or a washroom for both men and women.
Middleville fire hall, built in 1965, is undersized, in need of washrooms for both men and women, has no training room, washing machine, cleaning room for washing fire gear, and also has a wooden floor over the cistern.
“These halls were great in 1985; it is not great now,” Richardson said.
STORY BEHIND THE STORY: The Township of Lanark Highlands adopted a new fire plan, and we wanted to find out the reasons behind some of the recommendations cited in the plan. Next, we will talk to some White Lake residents about their concerns with the proposed fire hall closure.
Yona Harvey, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Smiths Falls Record News