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‘Brutally understaffed’ to combat high-rise blazes: Retired Kelowna firefighter

‘We have 120 firefighters on staff, but a minimum of 23 on shift,’ said Kelowna Fire Chief Travis Whiting
The under-construction Water’s Edge building on Truswell Road in Kelowna engulfed in flames moments before it collapsed on July 8, 2017. (File)

A 20-year veteran of the Kelowna Fire Department claims the city has approximately half of the minimum personnel recommended to fight a fire in any of the city’s high-rise buildings.

Steve Brandel, now retired, sent an email to several local developers, city staff and council, Kelowna’s fire chief, and several media outlets outlining his concerns. He told Capital News he and other firefighters have been trying to get their superiors and the city to pay attention to those concerns as, over the years, taller and taller buildings have been going up around Kelowna.

“There are repercussions for you to speak out. We’ve been complaining about this for two decades at least.”

Brandel cites standards from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to back up his assertion that the department is “brutally understaffed” to fight a high-rise fire.

“The NFPA recommends a response of 100-plus firefighters to a working fire in a high-rise structure,” said Brandel. “However, knowing that modern building construction has allowed for the potential of slower fire spread, they still drew a line in the sand and came up with an absolute minimum amount of 42 firefighters required to mitigate an emergency in one of these structures. Kelowna only has 23 for the entire city.”

Kelowna Fire Chief Travis Whiting confirms there are at least 23 firefighters on duty at all times.

“We have four shifts that rotate through of course,” said Whiting. “We have 120 firefighters on staff, but a minimum of 23 on shift. Staffing is not a linear equation, we look at a lot of different factors to ensure we have the appropriate staffing…we are continually looking at what our staffing needs are and working with the city to bring staff on as and when needed.”

Whiting added there are supporting factors such as volunteer departments and mutual aid agreements with neighbouring communities, and that department does use NFPA standards as guidance in a number of areas.

“It’s based on what our community needs are. There are a lot more factors that we look at other than to simply look at a single document.”

One of Brandel’s other concerns is the safety of firefighters and residents. He added that even though modern high-rise structures are better equipped to deal with a fire, dozens of personnel are still required for specialized operations.

“Before you even attack the fire you need ventilation teams, search teams, rescue teams, lobby control, sprinkler control, fire pumps control, and firefighters are only good for 20 minutes on an oxygen bottle before they have to come out and exchange. They’re only allowed to exchange once before they have to sit in rehab.”

The president of Kelowna Professional Firefighters Association Local 953 shares Brandel’s concerns.

“We always need more firefighters on the floor,” said Jason Pickwick. “We are close to NFPA standards on garden apartments (low-rise), and a 2,000 square-foot home. We are set up to fight fires at ground level all day long. The big issue on a fire is when you take it from ground level and put it up in the air between ten and 20 storeys.”

He pointed out that gear and equipment used by the Kelowna department, including emergency vehicles, fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems in buildings follow NFPA standards.

“It makes it expensive buying for staffing levels at NFPA standards,” he said. “The city controls the budget, and they can’t just hire another 2o members per shift. We have to grow into it. But we do have big-city issues in a medium-sized city.”

Pickwick said off-duty members and mutual aid agreements would be called upon should there be a major fire in a high-rise building in the city.

“It happened on Truswell,” he said, referring to a fire in July 2017 on Truswell Road.

It destroyed a six-storey building under construction and forced the evacuation of 176 homes in four multi-family buildings and nine nearby houses. The fire also spread to a building nearby, and three firefighters were injured.

“We had a full call out and everybody came,” added Pickwick. “At the end of the day, we do what we can do. Our initial attack on scene downtown is a four-man crew. They are very limited in what they can do. Others are coming and will be there in four to six minutes if they’re not at a call already. There is a risk to public safety and our members.”

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Gary Barnes

About the Author: Gary Barnes

Journalist and broadcaster for three decades.
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