The crux of the conflict between the Bowen Island Fire Department volunteer firefighters and fire chief Derek Dickson gained some clarity Thursday.
The two parties have been in a deadlock since the firefighters agreed not to resign Oct. 10 in exchange for Dickson taking a temporary leave.
The firefighters sent a letter to every mailbox on Bowen Island Thursday that explained some of their conflict with Dickson.
The letter alleges that Dickson had “no community experience” and “no understanding of a volunteer fire department” when he arrived. It includes allegations that Dickson “acted to dissolve the social aspect of the hall;” “made unrealistic demands for more time to be devoted;” “was disrespectful and criticized individual members in front of the membership;” “threatened to replace members with off-island firefighters,” and “wanted a volunteer to act as chief on weekends.” It says that the relationship between the firefighters and chief “soured almost immediately” upon the new chief’s arrival.
On the other side of the coin, some of Dickson’s issues with the fire department were revealed in a letter from acting fire commissioner Jay Brownlee. (The Office of the Fire Commissioner provides regulatory governance and legislative oversight for B.C. fire services.) Brownlee visited Bowen on Oct. 16, meeting with Mayor Gary Ander, chief administrative officer Kathy Lalonde and Dickson and separately with the firefighters.
In his summary of the conversations Brownlee says that Dickson said that there are “several core, statutory requirements not being followed.” These included: “fire apparatus pre-trips,” regular self-contained breathing apparatus equipment checks and documentation of training hours and programs.
“[Dickson] also told of the removal of the FF’s beer fridge, prior to which alcohol had regularly been consumed on the premises,” said the letter.
Brownlee’s letter says that as the municipality has the responsibility of setting the fire department’s service level and due diligence.
The Office of the Fire Commissioner’s training standards policy, the “Playbook,” came into effect in 2014 and was updated in 2015. It sets out minimum training and operational requirements for fire departments. The Playbook says that should a fire department undertake operations “for which its personnel are not adequately or appropriately trained or supervised,” both the department and authority having jurisdiction (in this case the municipality) face “potential legal liability.”
The firefighters’ Thursday letter addressed the training issue. It says that the firefighters have been training under the guidelines set out in the Playbook and that an outside contractor was hired in 2018 to give the firefighters the necessary training.
‘Training is an ongoing process, and the Office of the Fire Commission states ‘there is no hard deadline to be compliant...’,” reads the letter. “B.I. volunteers are working hard toward getting everyone fully trained.” (This is a quote from an Office of the Fire Commissioner webpage last updated in 2015.)
For the firefighters, the social aspect appears to be more significant.
“Volunteers respond to fire calls, medical emergencies and rescue calls at any time of the day or night,” says the letter. “While many calls have positive results, unfortunately some are tragic and the volunteers deal with a great deal of stress.
“We compensate for this by maintaining strong social bonds among volunteers and by providing community service in more upbeat circumstances.”
Of the 122 calls the Bowen Island Fire Department responded to between January 1 and July 31 this year, at least 65 were medical calls. Three calls were house fires, four were motor vehicle accidents and 11 were public hazards.
In Brownlee’s summary of his meeting with the firefighters, he says that among the topics discussed was labour relations.
“I was not there to offer an opinion about personality conflicts or messaging used in communicating to them about changes, we discussed the higher-level concept of the fire rescue service they provide to their community being far more important than interpersonal disagreements with BIM,” wrote Brownlee. “I provided my opinion that the firefighters had made their story known on the news last week, and that it has clearly got the attention of the employer and the community, and that the employer appeared willing to address many issues.”
While the municipality hired a third-party facilitator last week, after reading the contract between BIM and Southern Butler Price, the firefighters decided to halt mediation until they hire a lawyer.
A spokesperson for the firefighters, Ian Brown, said Thursday that the volunteers are in talks with a lawyer and they could have representation by next Monday at the earliest.
When asked about the firefighters’ open letter, Ander said that BIM was meeting with its HR lawyers Friday and would likely have a response at a later date.