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The Record - Downtown fire highlights wisdom behind province reserving firefighters for emergencies

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

After a large fire broke out in downtown Mission on April 13, Fire Chief Mark Goddard said he saw the logic behind the provincial health authority’s COVID-19 orders, which have limited firefighters’ response to only the most serious of emergency calls.

The fire on First Avenue began at around 1:45 p.m. and spread to other buildings, keeping the flames burning into the evening. It took approximately 50 firefighters to get it under control.

“You can see the wisdom in [the order] when all of a sudden the big fire does happen, and we have the staffing to be able to handle it properly. But up until that point, it seemed like a bitter pill,” Goddard said. “They’re keeping us [healthy] for when the inevitable fires do happen – as one did last weekend.”

The province’s top doctor, Dr. Bonnie Henry, mandated on March 31 that B.C.’s firefighters should only respond to “code purple” and “code red” emergency calls, which are defined as calls that are immediately life-threatening or time-critical.

Henry said the reason was to minimize risk to non-paramedic first responders and save the short supplies of personal protective equipment.

“During a pandemic, when we know that personal protective equipment is so important for our health-care workers and for our paramedics, we want to avoid exposing as many first responders as possible,” Henry said.

Goddard said this order is hard for the firefighters, who want to help the public any way they can, especially during a pandemic.

“It’s really tough on any first responder to have to sit out, or feel like they are sitting out. They’re not the type of people who cheer from the bench; they’re the type of people who are the first to get involved,” he said. “But I think they understand the wisdom of the medical health professionals that have made that decision. Medical is something we do, but it’s not the primary thing we do – that’s BC Ambulance Services.

“None of this is optimal, but this situation isn’t optimal.”

There are further changes in firefighters’ daily operations. Mission’s three firehalls are closed to the public; inspection work has been suspended, along with anything that’s been deemed non-essential; enhanced cleaning protocols have been put in place; and gyms and lunchrooms have been moved to allow for social distancing. The only place where the fire crews break social-distancing rules is when they are travelling in the fire trucks to an emergency.

Even though there have been no staffing shortages among the department’s 13 career staff and 80 on-call firefighters, Goddard said keeping his team healthy is the safe option. He said a full staff means Mission firefighters will be able to assist a neighbouring department if they become short-staffed.

“There is a lot of co-coordinating going on behind the scenes between different fire chief associations through Zoom (video conferencing) meetings,” Goddard said. “We’re just making sure that we really have our finger on the pulse of those who may become short-staffed. We’ve definitely upped our co-ordination and communication.”

This co-ordination is taking place through mutual-aid agreements and the Southwest Emergency Operation Centre in Surrey. While none of the regional municipalities is currently facing a shortage, weekly meetings are taking place to ensure the status of each department.

“Mutual-aid agreements are something that have been around for a really long time,” Goddard said. “With our downtown fire on First Avenue, we had a ladder company from Abbotsford Fire Rescue come and help us out. That’s all part of these agreements, where if you can provide like services back and forth between these municipalities, it’s done at a no-cost basis.”

Goddard is sure to praise his staff for their actions through the pandemic, and wants to remind the public to continue to adhere to the provincial social-distancing rules.

“The harder a situation is, the harder these individuals lean on each other. It’s just a testament to the type of people that go into this profession,” he said. “It’s not an easy time for anyone. If you’re a member of the public and you’re reading this, you can help us out by adhering to Dr. Henry’s recommendations and staying home whenever possible.”

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