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North Cowichan looks to rebuild fractured trust within fire department

Problems began with integration five years ago
North Cowichan is moving forward with recommendations intended to rebuild trust within its fire department after the integration of the municipality’s four fire halls under one management system five years ago. (Citizen file photo)

Recommendations meant to improve North Cowichan’s fire service culture and rebuild trust were given the green light by council at its meeting on Oct. 4.

Council received a report on communications and leadership within the fire department, prepared by Tim Pley and Associates, at the meeting and after a presentation, decided to provide funding for a full-time department support position.

Council also directed staff to retain Tim Pley and Associates, at a cost of $60,000, to undertake strategic planning with the fire department.


Other recommendations in the report will be reviewed as part of the 2024 budget planning process.

CAO Ted Swabey said North Cowichan has an excellent fire service, consisting of four fire halls and more than 100 employees, with dedicated staff that the municipality values tremendously.

“The report presented and its recommendations are meant to reset our direction by acknowledging the incredible work the fire service has achieved, and the areas we can support that would improve trust and clarity of purpose,” he said.

Historically, the individual fire halls, which include Chemainus, Crofton, Maple Bay, and South End, operated independently of each other.

But changes in the regulatory environment, combined with external reviews and recommendations related to the operation of the fire department, led North Cowichan to take steps five years ago to consolidate the department under one central administration.

Tim Pley’s report indicated that this resulted in a rapid pace of transformative change for the fire service that led to resistance from some department members, and the transition has not gone smoothly in a number of regards, including a lack of communication between many staff members and the new centralized management of the department.


Pley’s report said the fact that integration of management of the fire halls has not gone smoothly in all respects does not mean it should be abandoned.

“Rather, there is a need to focus on the…issues which have arisen, to redouble efforts to engage the members in all of the fire halls, and especially the fire department leadership team, and to address the issues of resourcing, leadership, trust and communications,” the report said.

“The department was under-resourced for the work involved in integrating the four fire halls and creating an effective and well-regarded centralized fire administration. The resourcing problem was compounded by resistance at the leadership-team level and throughout the department, and by the leadership style utilized to manage issues arising from implementation of the changes.”

Pley said the result is that, some five years on, while many department members acknowledge that there was a need for change, there remains broad and deep resistance directed towards the department and municipal leadership about the manner in which changes have been implemented and communicated.

He said an absence of effective channels of communication has left many members unsure of what to believe and who to look to for leadership, and speculation and conspiracy theories thrive in such a climate.


“The current situation is unlikely to improve without a significant change,” Pley said.

“To be clear, this is not a finding of fault with current department and municipal leaders or with the general membership of the department, but rather an indication that when situations devolve to the point where trust has been fractured to the extent it has in this case, a material investment of time and effort will be required to rebuild the necessary working relationships.”

Other recommendations in the report include having the fire chief report regularly to council, as the RCMP do; a process should be established to enable department members and management to communicate on non-operational matters; the terms of reference for the fire department leadership team be revised; and new staff roles should be created, including a human resource position designated to support the fire department’s recruitment and labour relations.

Robert Barron

About the Author: Robert Barron

Since 2016, I've had had the pleasure of working with our dedicated staff and community in the Cowichan Valley.
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