The conclusions drawn from a 2022 fire service evaluation of the Crossfield Fire Department underlined that while the fire department has, 'amazing people... that do an incredibly dangerous job', there is plenty of work to do within the Crossfield Fire Service.
The evaluation and subsequent executive report were carried out by Sea Hawk - a fire service equipment and consulting company. Crossfield Town Council heard from the lead evaluator, who is also the current Fire Chief of the Chestermere Fire Department, Jamie Coutts in late December 2022.
During the December 20, council meeting, Coutts said that this was a minimum fire services evaluation, which took into account the best practices, recommendations, and requirements of the fire service.
"If you got 100 per cent; you meet all the minimum standards that are available to run a safe, effective, affordable fire service,".
Crossfield scored 57 per cent, which Coutts said was average, adding that Sea Hawk at the time, had conducted 28 similar evaluations across different fire departments.
In January 2023, Discover Airdrie contacted Fire Chief Coutts for an interview on the evaluation, however, in an email, Chief Coutts wrote that only the town of Crossfield would be able to speak to the results of the evaluation.
While the report underlines that the evaluation was not meant to be punitive, in the five categories which were examined, including administration, operations, health and safety, training, and infrastructure, there were several troubling findings.
'The decisions that need to happen are not easy, or obvious.'
While a portion of the report is available publically, Discover Airdrie filed a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (the FOIP Act) request for access to the full evaluation report. The request was granted, but many corresponding documents were redacted.
The Town of Crossfield stipulated that some of the documents requested were redacted due to an unreasonable invasion of privacy as well as the potential of harm of a third party’s information being disclosed - in this case, the third party was Sea Hawk.
"...The portions redacted or refused disclosure in its entirety relate to the evaluation process followed by Sea Hawk that is propriety in nature," a letter from the Town of Crossfield stated.
In several different documents that make up the evaluation, Sea Hawk stipulates that the health and safety aspect at the Crossfield Fire Department is lacking.
"The Crossfield Fire Service has not fully integrated OH&S [Occupational Health and Safety] into their system. Although all participants said that health and safety are important, very few knew all aspects of what that actually meant within the fire service..." The executive report stated.
In late July 2023, Discover Airdrie asked the current Fire Chief, Bill Messner, to clarify the issues surrounding occupational health and safety due to redactions in the evaluation report. He was asked if the Crossfield Fire Department had previously not been adhering to Occupational Health and Safety regulations.
"It needs me to do a little bit more investigation," he said.
When asked if he agreed or disagreed with the report, he said that while the evaluation report provides overviews of improvements, he said he did disagree with some wording but would not elaborate on specifics.
He was also asked to clarify whether the Crossfield Fire Department has sufficient procedures for decontamination, as well as information about occupational cancer.
"Looking through the present standard operating guidelines, there were some starts to it, in terms of cancer," Chief Messner remarked. "In terms of decon[tamination], I know that there has been an awareness of it. I feel that we just need to sit down and make that a part of our upcoming new standard operating guidelines that are being created at this time."
Other key takeaways from the report include a lack of training in the Crossfield Fire Department.
"...Joint training with other jurisdictions in Rocky View County, Airdrie, Carstairs will add realism and excitement to the annual training plan...There is investment needed in this area..."
In the Sea Hawk report, the Crossfield Fire Department's training area was ranked as 'subpar'.
"The recommendation is to close it until repairs can be made and the proper investment can be made. There is no need for a huge training center, but a small, well-thought-out one, can and will improve firefighter safety."
Chief Messner said that he had visited the training area and said what has been started is impeccable but added that the training area is temporarily shut down.
"We are also making plans for the near future to help rectify and potentially get that area back up and running," he added.
Training is also addressed in the Level Changes document portion of the evaluation.
However, according to Deputy Chief of Operations Training for the Airdrie Fire Department, Garth Rabel, training with their mutual aid partners, which includes Crossfield, has always been and continues to be in constant evolution.
Deputy Chief Rabel underlined that the exchange of knowledge is always ongoing and isn't necessarily confined to formalized meetings and training sessions. He said that very often fire departments within the region are always communicating with each other about Standards Operating Guidelines (SOGs), often emulating SOG's from each other, about a variety of issues related to firefighter health and safety.
A formalized training session in the past year did occur between the Airdrie Fire Department and Crossfield as it related to fire prevention.
Deputy Rabel said that one of the greater challenges for fire departments outside the larger metro areas, such as Calgary, is that of static training facilities, something that is being addressed in the functional programming for Airdrie's fourth Firehall.
Levels of Service were another topic in the report.
"We found a variety of personal opinions regarding each level of service. It was interesting to hear how each new level of service was inspired and fulfilled... It is important to sort out what Council wants these firefighters to be focused on, and what they want to fund."
One of the questions raised by the report was that of the Crossfield Fire Department responding to calls on the QEII highway. According to the report, Rocky View County is the responsibility of the Alberta Government.
"The Crossfield Fire Service has taken on this liability for rescue, without the full consent of all the stakeholders involved, and with some compensation for the costs, but a huge burden to the members."
It is unclear who the other stakeholders the report is referring to. According to the province, while highways are the province's jurisdiction, with the province hiring contracting companies, the responsibility deals with highway maintenance.
"Contractors are responsible for highway maintenance activities including highway patrolling and emergency duties winter maintenance, line painting and pavement markings, etc.," the province states on its website, though it is unclear what emergency duties stipulate.
Chief Messner said that he would be looking at whether there could be efficiencies in the levels of service for the department, though he said it is much too early to discuss details.
Sea Hawk also homed in on the need to shore up staffing levels and find better ways of retention and recruitment.
"...Work needs to be done to the staffing levels, placements, and positions with the Crossfield Fire Service. In more immediate terms assistance needs to be provided to your Fire Chief in the following areas: Program and procedure development (policies, standard operating guidelines), training plan and implementation, apparatus and equipment maintenance, firehall maintenance and cleaning, service level review and implementation, and mutual aid contracts."
Chief Messner who stepped into the role of Fire Chief in May 2023, said as with all changes and evolutions in any organization, the approach to improvement is multi-faceted. He also noted that volunteering is not the same as it was decades ago.
"There is more focus being put on family life and spending time with family; on full-time jobs. These are all issues that culminate in the issues of retaining and recruiting firefighters. It's not just up to myself as Chief, but all fire chiefs across the province to try and come together and work together to try and find different avenues on how we can effectively mitigate that."
What triggered the evaluation?
In an interview in late January 2023, Now retired Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of Crossfield, Sue Keenan said that the decision to evaluate the town's fire service was triggered when in late 2021, several members of the Crossfield Fire Department came to her.
"They had expressed concerns with a bunch of different things that were happening within fire services. I advised them that I wasn't going to pursue any in-depth internal review until I got more information from the members in terms of what the issues were," Keenan said.
According to Keenan, an internal review was done in July 2022, with 13 firefighters volunteering for interviews. Based on those interviews, Keenan informed, then Fire Chief Ben Niven that she would be pursuing what she called an external audit of the fire service. In total, the evaluation cost $25,000.
"This $25,000 was spent in the exact place it needed to be spent based on the concerns that were raised internally," Keenan said.
The report was presented to the Crossfield Fire Department in January 2023.
"I was disappointed that people who shared some of those concerns didn't reiterate what they had shared," Keenan said. "At the end of the day, the bottom line is either our members are going to be part of the solution and open to the changes that are coming, or they won't."
A spokesperson for the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association (AFCA) noted that is not uncommon for towns or municipalities to request a neighbouring Deputy Chief of Fire Chief for a review, adding that they are aware of Sea Hawk and that it would be considered a private consultancy company, though they underscored that private consultancy companies are not regulated by any government body.
AFCA does offer a free online core competency tool for a department to conduct a fire service self-review.
Morale in the fire department
Chief Messner does not believe morale was lowered by the evaluation, saying that when he came into the role of Fire Chief, he noted that the firefighters who staff the department were genuinely passionate about helping their community.
"When I came in, I knew the one thing that I had to do is to refocus; not so much on the review, but how we're going to tackle that review and for the future for the future of this department."
In January 2023, town officials were also asked as to why members from the fire department were not present at the December 20 council meeting. Now retired Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of Crossfield, Sue Keenan, said she had sent several emails throughout the evaluation process to the fire department.
"Everyone was aware that it was going to council on the 20 [of December]. We don't specifically invite any staff to that; now that [council is] streamed [online]. They're open to the public," she said. "There were no special requests to have them there to present because it wasn't up to them to present anything. These were the consultants that were hired by council to provide a report. They could have come in and sat in like anyone else could have."
When town officials were asked if Sea Hawk would be a part of the implementation process of the recommendations they had outlined in their report, Keenan did say that they had been in preliminary discussions with Sea Hawk on that aspect.
"We're in conversations with them right now to get some financial figures that we can bring back to council and say, these are their priorities. It makes sense to bring them back, because if you go out to another RFP [Request for proposal] process, then whoever you bring back in, needs to bring themselves up to speed," she said. "Based on our recommendations for what those priorities should be or might be, then they'll tell us how they'd like to proceed."
In July 2023, Fire Chief Messner confirmed that Sea Hawk did offer further services after the evaluation but said he would not comment further on the issue unless more details were provided by the town council.
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