Highway 17 stretch in Ottawa Valley cut off from Jaws of Life
Municipality has no fire service, no obligation to respond to collisions on provincial route, says mayor
A 30-kilometre stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway in the Upper Ottawa Valley is cut off from life-saving machinery used to free people trapped in badly damaged vehicles because the surrounding municipality has no fire department.
The municipality of Head, Clara and Maria dissolved its volunteer fire service eight years ago, putting its lone pumper truck up for auction and becoming one of just six municipalities in Ontario without their own firefighters.
Until last fall, firefighters from the neighbouring towns of Laurentian Hills and Deep River were under contract to respond to highway collisions in Head, Clara and Maria.
But on Aug. 29, 2015, the municipal council voted to cancel those agreements after receiving an estimate of $34,000 to continue providing on-call "heavy extrication."
Currently Renfrew County paramedics are dispatched to collisions in Head, Clara and Maria, but they don't come equipped with the Jaws of Life, as the extrication equipment is commonly known.
'A concern for everybody'
"It's a concern of everybody," said Head, Clara and Maria Mayor Jim Gibson of the decision to cancel the agreements. "It wasn't an easy decision for council to make."
On Jan. 15, fire crews from Mattawa — approximately 60 kilometres away — rushed to Head, Clara and Maria to free people from an overturned truck, but an administrator from the County of Renfrew said that's not a sustainable solution.
I feel like it's a bit crazy not to have that [equipment] accessible to people.- Hope Ezerins, Head, Clara and Maria resident
Gibson said the municipality simply can't afford to bring its own fire service back, and doesn't have the ready volunteers anyway.
"The average age of [volunteers within] the fire service was 62 — pretty old — and we had no new volunteers stepping forward, so we had no choice but to disband it," Gibson said.
During the winter about 230 people live in Head, Clara and Maria. The population grows to about 400 in the summer as cottagers arrive.
"I feel like it's a bit crazy not to have that [equipment] accessible to people," said Hope Ezerins, who's lived in the municipality for nine years.
"It concerns me for people's safety. Who knows who could be driving along this stretch of highway and something like that happens? I mean, it could be me. It could be anybody"
Traffic studies conducted by the province in 2010 showed an average of 2,800 vehicles passed through the municipality each day.
Gibson said the municipality would be willing to forge a pay-as-you-go agreement for extrication from its neighbours.
"We have no idea what it would cost, but we'd be more than willing to pay what it costs if we could get a service agreement," Gibson said.
Asked province to 'fill the void'
In a letter sent to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne after Head, Clara and Maria council decided to end its extrication agreements with neighbouring towns, Gibson asked the province to "take a serious look at filling this void throughout the province and allocate the resources necessary to provide this potentially lifesaving service in a timely manner."
Gibson said he's received no reply.
"We basically put the ball in the premier's court, the province's court — it is a provincial highway — and we have no obligation to provide a service on a provincial highway," he said.
The Ministry of Transportation did not make anyone available for an interview.