'I responded alone': Charlottetown firefighter struggling with guilt asks MLAs for more help

·4 min read
Allan Tilley was one of three Charlottetown Fire Department firefighters to appear before a legislative standing committee on Wednesday calling for more resources.   (Wayne Thibodeau/CBC - image credit)
Allan Tilley was one of three Charlottetown Fire Department firefighters to appear before a legislative standing committee on Wednesday calling for more resources. (Wayne Thibodeau/CBC - image credit)

A Charlottetown firefighter says he's still haunted by the screams for help.

Allan Tilley has seen a lot in his 25 years with the Charlottetown fire department.

But this call was different.

Tilley was working alone at the downtown fire station when a call came in — a structure fire only minutes from the fire hall.

Somebody was trapped inside.

I think if we would have had a full crew on that night, we could have gained entry right away and done a successful rescue and got the person out. — Allan Tilley

Tilley was first to arrive on the scene, but all he could do was wait for backup to arrive. His training did not allow him to go in alone.

"You're waiting and waiting and you hear the screams," said Tilley.

"He died because of his injuries from the burns the next day."

But Tilley believes the death could have been prevented.

"I think if we would have had a full crew on that night, we could have gained entry right away and done a successful rescue and got the person out."

Tilley was one of three staff firefighters to appear before a legislative standing committee on Wednesday. The firefighters pleaded their case for more resources for Prince Edward Island's largest fire department.

Most firefighters are volunteers

There are eight full-time and eight part-time staff firefighters in Charlottetown, as well as a fire inspector and a fire prevention officer.

The rest of the 84-member department are volunteers.

During the evening hours and for most of the weekends, there is only one firefighter on duty at the downtown fire station, the firefighters told the committee.

There are no staff firefighters at the Sherwood fire hall.

Wayne Thibodeau/CBC
Wayne Thibodeau/CBC

Spencer Waite, president of the Charlottetown Professional Firefighters Association and a staff firefighter, praised the work of volunteer firefighters but added they cannot be expected to respond from home, or work, as quickly as a staff firefighter in the fire hall.

He said that means Charlottetown residents served by staff firefighters get a faster response time, even though all residents pay the same tax rate.

"For example, Brighton, the fire department would be at your door within two to three minutes. If you lived, let's say, in a subdivision off Lower Malpeque Road, you could be looking of upwards of 15 to 20 minutes," said Waite.

25 fire deaths since 1982

The union told P.E.I. MLAs there have been 25 fire deaths in the city since 1982.

How many firefighters were on duty when those fatalities happened?

"Majority, fewer than two," said Waite.

Waite said cities much smaller than Charlottetown have more staff firefighters, in numerous cases dozens more.

Wayne Thibodeau/CBC
Wayne Thibodeau/CBC

In addition, he said the city's population continues to grow and the number of fire calls continues to increase, from 420 calls in 2009 to 707 in 2018.

Karla Bernard, the Green MLA for Charlottetown-Victoria Park, described the comparisons as "shocking," "scary" and "embarrassing."

Bernard said the province needs to step in, adding the Municipal Government Act sets out a series of benchmarks municipalities must meet. She wants to take a closer look at what the act requires regarding fire protection services.

"You've got bystanders, you've got occupants who are in crisis and are panicked, of course, and you're the first responder who arrives and you have to just wait," said Bernard.

12 new volunteers in June

Ultimately, it's the city of Charlottetown that decides whether the fire department gets more staff firefighters.

In a statement to CBC News, the city said it added 12 new volunteer firefighters in June.

Contract talks between the city and the firefighters' union are ongoing, including discussions about staffing.

The city is in discussions to build a third fire station in the northwest part of the city. However, at this point, there have been no discussions about how that hall will be staffed.

Tilley said he still struggles with the outcome of that fatal fire he described to the provincial committee members.

He took time off work and continues to seek counselling due to "guilt, I think. I responded alone and couldn't help."

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