Firefighters on Yellowknife's Dagenais Drive. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Yellowknife firefighters say City Hall is unreasonably holding back some contents of a document that assesses the risks facing the city’s fire division.
The Community Risk Assessment, completed by consultants in 2022, summarizes risks to the fire division’s operations and reviews the division’s operational capabilities among other things.
The Yellowknife Fire Fighters Association says it requested a copy of the assessment from the City of Yellowknife in December, but received a heavily redacted version.
The city, which issued the same redacted version to reporters on Thursday, says the information it has blacked out is “sensitive and strategic in nature.”
“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,” firefighters’ association president Christian Bittrolff said in a statement.
The city said it takes community safety “very seriously.” Characterizing the document as “an important planning document [that] identifies and prioritizes risks so that the city can develop a plan that reduces or minimizes the risk,” a spokesperson said the inclusion of “sensitive information” meant not all of it can be shared.
Access to information rules don’t apply to the city as a municipality, but the city says it uses that legislation as a guide when responding to requests like the one from the firefighters.
Despite the legislation not applying, the firefighters say the city still accepted a $25 fee to produce the document, and the city’s document cites sections of the NWT’s Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act whenever parts are redacted.
“The city is not required to follow this act, but uses it as a guide to ensure fairness and transparency in the process,” spokesperson Kerry Thistle wrote.
So, even though the legislation does not apply, the city’s response acts as though it does and quotes two sections of the act to justify the redactions.
Most of the redactions fall under section 14, which in the legislation means redactions related to “advice, proposals, recommendations, analyses or policy options developed by or for a public body.”
However, some redactions are said by the city to fall under section 16 (if it applied), which refers to redactions of information that could “impair relations” with other governments – in this case, the city said, the Government of the Northwest Territories.
Delays, training and mutual aid are concerns
The main source of firefighting-related friction between the GNWT and City Hall in recent years has been the introduction of 9-1-1 across the territory.
The city and GNWT have sparred over how well that service works and who is responsible for alleged delays in the way calls are handled. Last year, the CBC reported officials’ concerns that overlap between 9-1-1 and the older 2222 local number, which still exists, could pose a risk to people who urgently need care.
In the Community Risk Assessment made public by the city on Thursday, some redacted sections immediately follow unredacted explainers of how territorial 9-1-1 service and the city’s systems interact. In places, those redactions are marked with “section 16,” meaning the city thinks whatever was redacted could hurt its relations with the GNWT.
Elsewhere in the document, entire sections and even their titles are redacted. Large parts of a section on fire prevention are redacted, while a section named YKFD Emergency Preparedness and Business Continuity is almost fully blacked out. Sections 15 and 17 have their titles and all related information obscured.
The firefighters’ association says that beyond dispatch delays, its other concerns – which may be the subject of some of the redactions, though it’s hard to tell – include “water availability, meaningful training, mutual aid and front-line resource allocation protocols.”
The association said it fears some issues could “leave the city without any firefighters available to respond to fires or other emergencies, in the event of simultaneous EMS calls for example.”
“Because of the level of redaction in the report, the firefighters have no way of knowing how those issues are being addressed, if at all,” the association’s statement continued.
The extent to which the city and its firefighters communicate beyond what’s legible in last year’s document is not clear.
“Ultimately, being denied the full report undermines our ability to advocate public and fire fighter safety,” the association concluded.