The two most senior firefighters in a rural Okanagan community have jetted off to Mexico, leaving fire services in the hands of a 22-year-old captain with support from the regional district’s fire services manager.
North Westside residents are now left without their two acting deputy fire chiefs Graeme Headley and Sean Barnes, prompting concern among some in the community.
“I know the residents are really upset,” said Callie Simpson, who sits on the North Westside Communities Association’s executive board. “To have two of the most senior guys off of our force at the exact same time puts us in a risky situation out here.”
North Westside Fire Rescue covers several rural unincorporated communities on the western side of Okanagan Lake, including Fintry, Killiney, La Casa, Westshore Estates, Caesar’s Landing and Valley of the Sun — all of which are managed by the Regional District of Central Okanagan (RDCO).
RDCO communications officer Bruce Smith said both Headley and Barnes will self-isolate for the required two-weeks upon their return before they’re available for active duty. In the meantime, Smith said the department is fully operational and functioning as usual. The 22-year-old left in charge of the hall has been with the department since he was in high school and has six years of experience working with North Westside Fire Rescue.
“Even with the deputy chiefs away, the operational requirement has been and will continue to be met,” he said, also noting winter is a “slower time of year” for fire department responses.
Despite RDCO discouraging employees’ non-essential travel amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith said the district doesn’t have the authority to approve or deny vacation requests of the fire hall’s 27 paid-on-call members due to them being volunteers. This in itself highlights an ongoing problem, said Simpson.
Simpson claims the dismissal of the hall’s former fire Chief Jason Satterthwaite and his deputy Rob Gajda in May 2020 came after they travelled to Vernon for training. The indefinite suspension resulted in community backlash and an eventual exodus of several volunteers. Upon request for comment on the issue, the RDCO stated it does not publicly discuss the reasoning behind its employment decisions.
This, Simpson said, begs the question of why Barnes and Headley aren’t being held to the same standard.
“[Satterthwaite and Gajda were] suspended for attending that course because it broke RDCO policy. But these guys can go to Mexico?” Simpson said.
“There seems to be this huge double standard; the RDCO seems to pick and choose who they decide to enforce rules on.”
This is the latest debacle in ongoing tensions between North Westside residents and the RDCO. Currently, Simpson is part of a regional self-governance committee that has made a recommendation to the RDCO board for an independent self-governance analysis for the North Westside — something the community has pursued since 2016 due to a lack of trust between the district and its residents.
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