Lack of fire protection resources putting community at risk, says Jean Marie River chief

Stanley Sanguez, the chief of Jean Marie River, N.W.T, says his community's firefighters are undertrained and do not have proper equipment — and that he's worried it could lead to a disaster in the future.

Stanley Sanguez is calling for more support from the territorial government

Residents of Jean Marie River watch a wildfire burn near the community in 2013. Chief Stanley Sanguez described the fire as a 'real eye opener' and said that the community's fire protection division is in desperate need of more resources. ((Photo courtesy of Tyrone Sanguez))

The chief of Jean Marie River, N.W.T., says he's worried that a lack of fire protection resources is putting his community at risk.

Stanley Sanguez said volunteer firefighters in Jean Marie River haven't received training to put out fires and that equipment in the community is out of date and not usable. The fire department is currently operating at a basic — or preventative — level of service.

"My fear as a chief here is that does it have to take a human life to do anything before tragedy comes?" he said.

According to Sanguez, the N.W.T.'s Department of Municipal and Community Affairs provided Jean Marie River with a fire truck several years ago, but it's not equipped to fight house fires. The truck can hold enough water to be operable for 15 to 20 minutes, he said, and is only suitable for putting out grass fires.

Sanguez, right, at the Dene Nation leadership meeting in March. He says that he's worried issues with Jean Marie River's fire protection services won't be addressed until it's too late: 'my fear as a chief here is that does it have to take a human life to do anything before tragedy comes?' (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

"Everybody had a good laugh out of that," he said. "And I said: 'holy smokes, why are you laughing at that when it's serious in our communities here if there's a house fire?'"

Sanguez highlighted a wildfire in 2013 that forced many Jean Marie River residents to evacuate as a "real eye opener." He said he's speaking out so communities across the territory will get more support from the territorial government.

"Everybody sings the same song, somebody's got to be heard somewhere," he said.

Community government must act, says GNWT

Kevin Brezinski, director of public safety with the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, said he doesn't know about the history of fire equipment in Jean Marie River but he suspects it meets what's called a basic level of service, which doesn't include fighting structure fires.

Brezinski said the department did an assessment of fire protection services in the community last year and chief and council decided they were best equipped to offer a preventative level of service, based on the number and training of volunteers as well as the state of equipment they have.

While the department offers training and will work with communities on fire prevention action plans, he said it's ultimately up to municipal governments to determine what, if any, level of service they will offer.

"Really there is some good leadership required on behalf of the community government to ensure that the efforts are brought to fruition," he said.

Jean Marie River a priority

Brezinski added the department is in "constant contact" with communities across the territory and that given Sanguez's concerns it will check in with Jean Marie River. He also said the community is a priority for the department when it comes to disaster mitigation and emergency planning, as its plan hasn't been reviewed in some time.

When it comes to purchasing equipment, Brezinski said it's also up to a community to decide how to budget funding they receive from the department. He said communities are responsible for maintaining equipment, though the department is currently working on a maintenance guide.

Sanguez said he was not chief at the time the assessment with the department took place but he feels fire protection services haven't improved and that more support is needed.

"That assessment should have told them that 'hey, we've got to step up these things in our small communities here,'" he said.

He also said diverting municipal funding to fire protection resources would mean losses in other vital areas, like water and sewer services.