‘Division’ at Okanagan fire department leads to investigation

Third-party investigator hired by City of Enderby makes recommendations, options for fire department

The City of Enderby, its fire department and a third-party investigator are assuring residents they are “100 per cent safe” following an investigation into discontent among the fire department membership.

The Morning Star received a pair of anonymous emails from a person claiming to be an ex-member of the Enderby Fire Department, stating he/she was contacted by the investigator “to look into the recent officer promotions if there is a protocol breach and conflict of interest.”

Mayor Greg McCune confirmed the city hired investigator Lorne West of Fort Langley, “but not for those reasons in the email.”

“What happened was, we had some safety concerns brought to us,” said McCune. “As we tried to work through that process, and see if we could understand them, and to see if they were warranted, it became evident there was a division amongst the fire hall.”

West, a career firefighter with an extensive resumé, said after a meeting with Enderby chief administrative officer Tate Bengston into allegations at the fire hall, it was decided to proceed with an investigation with the framework being the dynamics inside the fire hall.

“I began with two protagonists involved with a bit of conflict in the fire department,” said West. “I met with them and interviewed them for about an hour. I evaluated the situation and asked them to tell me who else I should talk to.”

West said he interviewed 10 members of the 23-member fire department in person and another nine by phone. Only two members declined to be interviewed.

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Interviews went about 45 minutes and everybody spoken to was told what they said would be in confidence and anonymous.

“I had a series of eight-to-10 questions that were intended to prompt more questions,” said West. “There were specific questions around the organization of the fire department, leadership, fire safety and fire safety grounds.

“I spent considerable time with them, evaluated their concerns and reviews and then I provided a report to the membership as an update; what I had found in a general way and where I was going, what the next steps would be. There are eight or nine recommendations that should take place and four options in terms of stepping forward. It’s my recommendation as to what I thought was the best course of action for a sustainable, well-resourced, long-term, well-run fire department.”

West and McCune declined to discuss the recommendations and options as they are still an in-camera item before Enderby council.

Coun. Raquel Knust has recused herself from all discussions on the fire department matter due to a conflict of interest.

West said the membership adopted his report and all involved had agreed to it initially. Overnight, he said, those that wanted change weren’t happy and tendered their resignation.

The second anonymous letter said six members had resigned, and that was confirmed to The Morning Star by current fire chief Cliff Vetter.

West said the fire department won’t miss the members who left.

“My report to council essentially said if you want to sustain the fire department, you need members committed to the community,” he said. “If members walk away from the fire department when the changes we’re seeking are transparency, consistency, standardization, merit-based promotion, and committed to a three-to-six-month review to make sure that’s happening, and they still walk away, the fire department is better off without them.”

West said he asked every single member he interviewed, is the fire department sustainable, and is recruitment and retention sustainable if one side or the other chooses to walk away.

“Of the 21 members I interviewed, only one said, ‘I didn’t think so,’” said West, adding that through the interview process, there were two or three members of the challengers that “rarely showed at fire department call-out responses.”

Vetter, who became chief in June 2017, has spent 24 years with the fire department. He was stung by the accusations.

“Of course it hurts,” he said. “Nobody wants to hear all that, right?”

Vetter said he has sat extensively with the city and has let the city know the safety of the community is not being compromised.

“We have a good core of people there (fire hall),” said Vetter. “We had five calls over the Christmas break. We had maximum attendance at each call. There is no reason for any citizen of Enderby or the Shuswap River Fire District to be concerned. We’re fully on board with the recommendations and, hopefully, going forward we will implement them and make a stronger hall.”

RELATED: Enderby mourns loss of firefighter

Vetter said the hall has five new recruits and one member returning to the department, giving the hall a roster of 23 firefighters.

“In my honest evaluation, the strength of the department lies in its younger, more junior members,” said West. “They have a strength of commitment that is really encouraging to see.

“In my view, the members that chose to leave, on one hand, were those that were creating the challenge, to begin with, and, two, displayed a lack of commitment to a real fair and reasonable process to build a better fire department.”

McCune said the community is not in danger.

“No, not at all,” he said. “We feel there is no risk at all. Now, it’s a matter of moving forward with those recommendations and making sure everyone is satisfied that things are the way they should be. It’s unfortunate it came to this, but I think we’ve taken the steps we needed to take.”

West has been involved with fire service for 45 years.

He is a certified accreditation officer with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International, so he visits fire departments and accredits their capabilities. West served 12 years on the International Association of Fire Fighters’ executive board, chaired the Canadian affairs committee and the Canadian seat on the Global Alliance of Fire Fighters Association.

West served 12 years as chair of a human relations committee resolving conflicts in a fire station related to harassment or discrimination. He spent 35 years as an active firefighter in the City of Surrey, retiring in 2012 as a battalion chief, the highest command officer on the ground in Surrey.



roger@vernonmorningstar.com

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