Yellowknife firefighters critical of city hall's handling of public safety document
The Yellowknife Firefighters Association says the city is withholding key parts of an important public safety report, and that the redactions are indicative of a lack of transparency at City Hall.
"This is a serious concern. People have a right to know the details about something as important as how the city plans to keep them and their families safe from fires and other emergencies," Christian Bittrolff, president of the association, said in a media release on Thursday.
"Being denied the full report undermines our ability to advocate [for] public and firefighter safety."
The city commissioned public safety consulting firm David Mitchell and Associates Ltd. to produce a report on community hazards, and the specific risks relevant to the Yellowknife Fire Department. The report also reviews the Yellowknife Fire Department's operational capabilities.
The Fire Division Community Risk Assessment was given to the city in April 2022, but the copy that went to the fire department itself was heavily redacted. The city released a heavily redacted version to local media, as well.
The 143-page document offers a comprehensive examination of, among other things, various hazards in the city and the level of risk posed by those hazards, emergency preparedness, emergency response times, fire department staffing, training, equipment, and the interplay between the N.W.T. 911 and the city's dispatch centre.
The city says the report is part of a process to help it determine what the local risks are, and to develop a plan to reduce those risks deemed to be a high priority.
But with large portions of the report redacted, it's impossible for the public to get a complete picture of the risks in Yellowknife, and what should be done about them.
'The essence of the report has been redacted'
Bittrolff told CBC News that the content in the report that was left untouched is information that the firefighters or the city gave to the consultants — in other words, information the firefighters already have access to.
He said it appears that the useful stuff — anything that might be considered advice or recommendations — has been blacked out.
The redacted sections pertain to "core functions of our job," said Bittrolff: dispatch, water availability, training, and how the fire department allocates resources and responds to emergencies.
"The essence of the report has been redacted," he said.
Having access to that information, he added, would allow firefighters and the public to know where the gaps are in emergency preparedness, and would allow emergency services to work on addressing them.
The city didn't provide CBC News with an interview. In an emailed statement, Kerry Thistle, the city's director of economic development and strategy, said some information in the report is "sensitive," so instead of giving over the full report, the city gave the fire department an overview in the fall of 2022, and updated the department on next steps after that.
The firefighters association said it attempted to get the full report through an access to information request to the city, and paid the city $25 to do so.
But the city is not covered by the territory's Access to Information and Protection of Privacy (ATIPP) Act. Andrew Fox, the territory's information and privacy commissioner, said this means the city is not legally obligated to provide access to any of its records, and decisions about what information it makes public or keeps private can't be appealed to the information commissioner.
Despite this, the city chose to treat the document similarly to how it would if it was subject to ATIPP rules, citing sections of the act in places where the report is redacted.
Thistle said the city uses the territorial ATIPP act as a "guide to ensure fairness and transparency" when responding to access to information requests.
One section cited in the Community Risk Assessment report is s.14(1)(a), which allows a public body to refuse to disclose information that could reveal advice, recommendations or policy options developed for a government or public agency.
The city said the report was prepared for the explicit purpose of providing the city with advice.
The other section cited is s.16(1)(a)(iii), which enables a public body to refuse disclosing information that could "impair relations" between the N.W.T. government and a municipality.
No municipalities have been brought under ATIPP act
The Northwest Territories government amended the ATIPP Act in 2019 to make it possible to apply the law to municipalities. Though those changes came into force in July 2021, no municipalities have been brought under the act yet.
Fox, the territory's information commissioner, said the act is "fairly complex," and trying to determine what redactions are appropriate can be tricky. That's why governments train staff to do this work.
Regardless, since the city is not bound by the ATIPP act, whatever information it did provide to the firefighters association was "ultimately just an act of their own discretion," said Fox.
In Bittrolff's view, it's high time the city is brought under the ATIPP act.
"It's not just about this report," he said.
"It's a pretty integral part of any open democracy to have access to information."
He hopes city council will intervene and help get the firefighters the complete report.