The province’s decision to cut a $500,000 grant, that mostly benefited smaller, rural fire departments, is both shortsighted and disappointing, says the president of the Alberta Fire Fighters Association.
“When we cut red tape at the risk of public safety, firefighter safety, we take exception to that,” said Brad Readman.
Penhold Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jim Pendergast agreed. He said the decision will impact the department, which consists of 35 firefighters.
The volunteer firefighters, who put their lives on the line for their community, have depended on the grant in the past for both basic and specialized training, including ice rescues.
Pendergast said Wednesday that training at volunteer fire departments, like Penhold’s, happens more frequently than at paid fire departments, because people tend to move away, depending on their day jobs.
Penhold has applied for the grant in the past as part of a regional group of fire departments in central Alberta, said Pendergast.
The funding was helpful for training, which can be expensive – books, instructors, special materials such as dry chemicals, course fees and so on, are costly.
“The books are $300 to $400 each, so say, if we have 12 or 13 people on the course, the books alone are several thousands of dollars.”
He explained over the years, the grant has been reduced, and now it’s down to zero.
“We always say, ‘fire doesn’t know if you’re paid or not when you go there,’ ” he said.
“Anything that reduces the amount of money we have to train will have a definite effect on safety on both firefighter safety and public safety for sure.”
Readman said cancellation of the grant will test the entire system.
In a hypothetical example, Readman explained, if Red Deer County didn’t have firefighters trained to a certain standard, the City of Red Deer wouldn’t be able to rely upon them to provide mutual aid.
“Our members are at risk, if, hypothetically, the county doesn’t have the funds to train members up to a certain standard, that’s how it’s going to impact other communities as well, and put a strain on the whole system.”
Red Deer County was approved of the grant for this year – for about $20,000.
Dave Brand, director of community and protective services, said the county does not rely on the grant. The volunteer firefighters at the county are paid-on-call.
“We understand this may impact other (fire) departments, but fortunately for us, our training budget doesn’t rely on the grant. We’re extemely fortunate that council sets the service level and provides support for training,” he explained.
The firefighter training budget for 2020 is $80,000.
“We apply for the training grant and if we receive it, we consider it to be a bonus,” Brand said.
The decision from the province came around the same time as the beginning of wildfire season in Alberta – March 1.
Wildfire season begins one month earlier in Alberta than in other jurisdictions and runs until Oct. 31. Research shows wildfires are starting earlier and lasting longer, the province said in a release.