A recommendation for North Cowichan to hire a full-time assistant fire chief in 2020 to help deal with the growing number of required fire inspections in the municipality was met with skepticism at the council meeting on Dec. 18.
After a discussion on the issue, council decided to direct staff to prepare a report which will outline options for cost recovery for the new position, and provide more clarification and analysis of what’s required.
In a staff report, Martin Drakeley, North Cowichan’s manager of fire and bylaw services, said the municipality is in the process of establishing a regular system of fire inspections of hotels and public buildings as mandated by the province, and that more than 1,700 fire inspections will be required to be completed every year.
He said one fire inspector can complete approximately 500 inspections annually, and that doesn’t take into account the necessary re-inspections or follow up with non-compliant businesses.
Drakeley said that currently, North Cowichan has one CUPE position that is 40 per cent fire inspector and 60 per cent bylaw enforcement officer.
He said with the current level of bylaw enforcement and the increased demands for enforcement related to the opioid/homeless crisis, there is no capacity to do other than minimal fire and safety inspections.
“Non compliance with the Fire Services Act leaves the municipality open to liability for damage, injury or death in the event of a fire that may have been prevented with a regular system of fire inspections,” Drakeley said.
Coun. Rob Douglas pointed out that North Cowichan has hired a lot of new staff over the last two years.
“While that’s a good thing as the municipality is better able to deliver services, my concern is whether we can sustain that rate of hiring,” he said.
“I don’t think we can with the current tax base. We should look at existing resources and work with what we have. We must consider the possible legal costs of the [threatened lawsuit from the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit] and the projected five per cent tax increase in 2020, which is way out of whack from recent years due partly to the financing for the new RCMP building. I’m hesitant to add another position.”
Coun. Christopher Justice asked staff if any of the current firefighters in North Cowichan would be interested in taking more training to cover fire inspections, or if fire inspection fees could be charged to cover the costs.
CAO Ted Swabey responded that the municipality’s firefighters are paid-on-call and are engaged in other work, so it would be difficult for them to take on those responsibilities.
He said the issue of charging fees is something that could be looked at, but hiring a new assistant fire chief would make a “bigger dent” in the required work.
“Staff are already stressed to the max,” Swabey said.
Coun. Tek Manhas said that for the owners of many commercial buildings, fire inspections are a safety issue so a number of them have them inspected themselves.
Finance manager Mark Frame said some businesses do take on the task of conducting their own fire inspections, but the municipality is still responsible to ensure that they are done, and done correctly.
The staff report on the issue is expected in the new year.