Randy Sinasac has been in the role of Norman Wells fire chief for just under five months, but he is already calling for more firefighters to join the ranks.
Sinasac told Cabin Radio the fire department has a core group of around 11 paid-on-call firefighters, plus others who cycle in and out of the community. He’s looking to double that number.
“Being a small tight-knit community, everybody knows that we have a very dedicated, tight-knit group of volunteers, but that the community will be served better if we had more people,” said Sinasac, stating his target of finding 10 new paid-on-call firefighters.
The department faces the usual turnover challenges associated with remote communities. “People do tend to come and go from here,” he acknowledged. “Even at the top level, I think I’m the third chief they’ve had here in under five years.”
The knock-on effect is difficulty coordinating training with low numbers.
Sinasac says there have been enough volunteer firefighters showing up to calls but, if a more complex call arises, there could be an issue.
Minutes from a November 5 council meeting suggest only two firefighters were available to fight the town’s last landfill fire.
“There are times right now, based on availability and work schedules and the transience and all the things that I’ve brought up, that could put us in a place where we only have two or three firefighters responding,” Sinasac said. “That certainly is not where we want to be.”
Just about anybody can be a firefighter, Sinasac said, as the role involves a wide range of duties. From electrical knowledge to fighting actual fires, to interacting with the community and raising money, the work is varied.
To help recruitment, Sinasac is hoping to double compensation for paid-on-call firefighters.
At the moment, paid-on-call crew receive a flat rate of $30 per fire call and $25 per training session. During recent Town of Norman Wells budget deliberations, Sinasac was able to secure an increased sum – $200,000 – for fire hall honorariums and payroll expenses in the year to come.
This year’s figure, which also includes Sinasac’s pay, was just under $82,000. He said that was largely due to the low number of firefighters.
The 2020 budget also covers fire hall upgrades, such as $48,000 for new bay doors and a washer extractor (industrial washing machine) for the fire department. A new fire truck is anticipated to appear in the Town’s budget for 2022.
Dozens of prank calls daily
Recruiting more firefighters is not the only thing on Sinasac’s radar. He is currently in talks with the Yellowknife fire division about having its staff run a dispatch service for the Norman Wells fire department. For the time being, calls are received by Sinasac and volunteers.
Using Yellowknife as a dispatch would allow records of calls. If a call ultimately results in legal action, such as an arson case in Norman Wells last year, Sinasac said the information recorded by dispatchers could be important.
Sinasac also hopes changing the way dispatch works will alleviate prank calls he and his volunteers continue to receive on the emergency line. According to Norman Wells council documents, these calls are continuing at a rate of up to 30 per day.
Volunteers who take these calls during evenings and weekends say sleeping through the night is becoming difficult. “Some weekends are absolutely horrendous,” Sinasac said.
Sinasac plans to retire the Town’s emergency line by early January, turning it into a non-emergency line instead, while urging residents to use the newly active 911 service. Work to make sure community members know about this change is under way.
Sinasac hopes to have the new dispatch system up and running some time in 2020.
“A lot of the fire departments in the Northwest Territories are in their infancy, but the potential is there for them to catch up to just-about the same level as everyplace else. And that’s where the real work comes in,” he said.
“To be able to provide a certain level of service, you have to have a certain number of firefighters – and they have to be trained to a certain degree.”