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MD report explores ways out of Canmore fire agreement

“In my mind and I’m not sure if council agrees, but we’ve got one of two options: continue with the agreement or look at alternative service methods. Those are the two pieces and we need to identify some of the pros and negatives of both.”

MD OF BIGHORN – A recent fire services risk assessment for the MD of Bighorn recommends improved emergency vehicle access between the Trans-Canada Highway and Highway 1A by way of a bridge or tunnel across the Bow River, and hiring three full-time firefighters and a deputy fire chief.

The MD hired Transitional Solutions Inc. to complete the report aimed at providing better fire services to residents and based on the municipality's dissatisfaction with the “significant” price hike in its mutual aid agreement renewed with the Town of Canmore in 2022.

“In my mind, I’m not sure if council agrees, but we’ve got one of two options: continue with the agreement or look at alternative service methods,” said Andrew Box, the MD’s protective services manager and fire chief with Exshaw Fire-Rescue. “Those are the two pieces and we need to identify some of the pros and negatives of both.”

In a presentation to Bighorn’s governance and priorities committee Oct. 24, Box said fees for having Canmore Fire-Rescue respond to emergencies in Harvie Heights, Dead Man’s Flats and Lac Des Arcs – where it’s often able to respond faster than the MD – increased by 109 per cent from 2017 to 2022.

Canmore Fire-Rescue is staffed with full-time personnel and is closer to some of the MD’s hamlets than the nearest station in Exshaw, which is unable to provide a timely response due to staffing, travel distance, and accessibility to the Trans-Canada.

However, Box estimates the municipalities’ next mutual aid agreement could cost Bighorn upwards of $300,000 per year, which would “more than pay for two full-time firefighters in itself,” he noted.

The report looked at risk factors within the municipality’s fire service, including past fire losses, demographic, structural, infrastructure, fire response, community hazard and economic profiles.

Its first recommendation, above all others, was to improve access across the Bow River.

“No. 1 is better access between Highway 1A and Highway 1, so a bridge or a tunnel of some kind to ensure that we could get emergency services onto Highway 1 quicker than we currently can,” Box said.

The Exshaw Fire hall is a 19-minute travel time to Lac Des Arcs, not including muster time of paid on-call volunteers to the station, which can add another eight to 10 minutes, the report notes.

“The actual distance from Exshaw to Lac Des Arcs is 600 metres when crossing the Bow River,” the report states. “Transitional strongly recommends entering into discussions with Alberta Transportation and the province of Alberta regarding the necessity to build a bridge and/or tunnel from Exshaw to Lac Des Arcs.”

It was further recommended to the MD that if the infrastructure is built, the provision of fire-rescue services be renegotiated with the Town of Canmore to reflect the municipality’s ability to manage the Highway 1 hamlets.

Transitional conducted a comparative analysis of the mutual aid agreements among municipalities in the Bow Valley and similar agreements in the province. The assessment considered the facilities, equipment, and staffing requirements essential for the provision of fire service delivery models within the Bow Valley.

Ultimately, the contractor made several recommendations to help steer the MD away from its mutual aid agreement with Canmore to become more self-sufficient, including hiring three full-time firefighters and a deputy fire chief to be stationed in Exshaw.

The MD currently employs one full-time fire chief, three district chiefs and over 50 paid on-call firefighters across three stations, including two in the Benchlands area.

With a full-time fire crew in Exshaw, in the area of highest population concentration within the MD, Box said the municipality would be in a better position to adjust response structures and protocols with Canmore Fire-Rescue.

“All of the service calls, all of the alarms calls would come back to Exshaw and we would start to service those right off the bat,” he said. “But anything where we obviously have identified that there’s a critical time response required, we could co-respond with Canmore.

“We would roll our truck; they would roll out. I would speculate that at this time Canmore Fire is probably gonna get to the community of Harvie Heights before us and probably gonna get to Dead Man’s Flats before us if they’re not already pre-engaged on another call themselves.”

Upon arriving at a scene, however, Exshaw Fire would check in with Canmore Fire and ideally take over to reduce the amount of time Canmore crews are needed, allowing them to return to station.

“I think you probably already foresee what I’m trying to do is how do we reduce the ask of Canmore Fire-Rescue and take that back on to MD fire services,” said Box to the governance and priorities committee.

The report also recommends the mutual aid agreement be renegotiated on a fee-for-service structure instead of as an automatic aid solution.

Box said on their current agreement, the MD is “getting billed soon as the tones go, even if the vehicle doesn’t roll.

“We would hopefully be able to identify in the agreement that payment will be forthcoming should services be rendered,” he added.

Box further noted he was not fully satisfied with the Transitional report. While it provided some insights for the MD to consider, he said about half of the report was not in scope with expected deliverables.

“There are a number of other recommendations, but I didn’t tie them as closely to what the actual ask was for this report,” said Box, adding he’s already tapped the contractor on the shoulder to revise the document and present it at the next GPC meeting on Nov. 28.

The prospect of building a fire hall in Dead Man’s Flats (DMF) was one area the report failed to look at, if, for example, no access is built across the river.  

“If we’re looking at a DMF fire station down the road, one of the pieces that wasn’t really answered at all was what’s the staffing structure in that hall?” Box said.

“I believe to maintain the current level of service the expectation would be from the community that you’ve got a staffed fire hall across the road. Because that’s the current level of service that our residents get from Canmore.”

Asked by Reeve Lisa Rosvold what he thought of the recommendation of a bridge or tunnel across the Bow River, Box’s tone lightened.

“I would love it,” he said. “We live in a very narrow valley with very limited access egress, so I believe any improvements in the infrastructure I 100 per cent wholeheartedly support.

“The risk piece that I would tie into that is what do we do in the meantime, obviously this is not going to happen quickly.”

Coun. Rick Tuza asked if the MD should be having conversations about a bridge or tunnel now.

“With the volume of traffic that we’ve seen increase in the years, the emergency response, the need for alternative routes to exit communities, is it time to ask the province to look at it?” he asked, noting thorough public consultation would also need to occur.

Rosvold agreed consultation is important, but safety takes priority.

“As much as we do need to consult the public, I think the public also needs to be aware that this is about providing safe communities for everybody in the MD of Bighorn,” she said.

“It’s not just a nice-to-have, it might turn into a need-to-have.”

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.

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