Alberta volunteer fire department stops service

A small Alberta community's volunteer firefighters have suspended their service over concerns with the burden of work the department is handling.

Responding to Highway 63 collisions overwhelms volunteers

Sheri Johnson, the acting fire chief of Wandering River, Alta., suspended service on Thursday. ((CBC))
A small Alberta community's volunteer firefighters have suspended their service over concerns about the large amount of work the department is handling.

Sheri Johnson, the acting fire chief of Wandering River, suspended service Thursday, saying the seven female volunteer firefighters for the hamlet, about 200 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, find the amount of work overwhelming.

The volunteers are on call around the clock covering both the hamlet and a 128-kilometre stretch along northern Alberta's Highway 63, known as one of the most deadly roads in the province.

With the department suspended, Wandering River has no fire or emergency response services, Johnson said.

"As it stands right now, we have no fire protection; we have no medical first response," Johnson said.

Wandering River is about 200 kilometres south of Fort McMurray.
"It's one of the toughest decisions I've had to make in a long, long time."

The volunteers are trained as firefighters, but most of their calls are as first responders to collisions on Highway 63, Johnson said.

Since all the volunteers have full-time jobs, only two or three of them end up responding to the calls, and that isn't sufficient for a serious crash, she said.

"We all do this because we like to help, but there comes a point in time where you have to say, 'This is a little bit too much'," Johnson said. "Our response on Highway 63 … it's been a lot for the members to handle.

"We're just to the point now where we don't have enough people to do it safely, and without some more volunteers, we just can't carry on the way we've been."

Response time could be as long as 90 minutes

The volunteer fire department in Grassland, about 50 kilometres south of Wandering River, will take over the emergency response in Wandering River for now.

Grassland Fire Chief Arnie Derko says the travel time to calls on Highway 63 could be as long as 60 to 90 minutes. ((CBC))
Grassland Fire Chief Arnie Derko said travel time to a call could take anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes.

"It's going to delay the time quite a bit to get to the calls, and you want to be there as fast as you can," he said. "It puts stress on us because we know that we're not able to help as soon and as often as we can."

As in Wandering River, the majority of Grassland's calls are for highway crashes. Firefighters face added stress from the severity of the incidents, Derko said.

"We should have more help," he said

The Alberta Emergency Management Agency should pay more attention to small volunteer fire departments, Derko said.

Officials from the agency are expected to speak with Wandering River's firefighters on June 7.

If the agency can find a way for the firefighters to do their jobs without having to handle the Highway 63 crashes, Wandering River's seven volunteer firefighters will consider taking up their posts again, Johnson said.

Responsibility for the emergency management agency falls under Alberta's Ministry of Municipal Affairs.

The province could possibly step in to help Wandering River in the short term, said Municipal Affairs Minister Hector Goudreau, but it doesn't have the budget to help volunteer firefighters cover their territory over the long term; nor does it want to do so.

"We need to recognize that if we do it for that particular community, we will be challenged by every other community in the province of Alberta that provide a paid service to individuals," he said.

The province has dramatically reduced the number of crashes on Highway 63, Goudreau said, by spending more than $1 billion on improvements, which include twinning the road.

With files from the CBC's Briar Stewart