In the fall of 2023, multiple resignation letters from now-former volunteer firefighters of the Beiseker Fire Department have raised questions about the department's occupational health and safety and training standards.
The Village of Besieker and the Besieker Fire Department declined to be interviewed, however, DiscoverAirdrie obtained documents via the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP) from the Village of Beiseker and the Fire Department relating to allegations by former fire department members.
Occupational Health and Safety orders
Between 2021 and 2023, three Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) orders were issued to the Beiseker Fire Department regarding various contraventions of the Occupational Health and Safety Code. Since the orders were issued, the fire department complied with the orders.
The most recent order was issued in November 2023, when an OHS officer noted that the department did not have harassment and violence prevention procedures available at the time of inspection.
An earlier OHS and Alberta Health Services inspection in 2021 found that the fire department was not complying with COVID-19 protocols and that there were also violations because no hazard assessment documentation was available. A re-inspection was conducted in mid-April, with the department producing the needed documentation.
Despite the OHS orders and subsequent compliance by the fire department, in their resignation letters, former members enumerated multiple concerns including what they perceived as a lack of training and preparation for new recruits.
August 2022 incident
An incident that several former members alluded to in their letters was regarding a structure fire that occurred in the summer of 2022.
According to the incident report from the Beiseker Fire Department, the fire occurred at the Replenish Nutrients Ltd facility. The incident was attended to by Fire Chief King, as well as another volunteer firefighter.
According to a letter sent to the Beiseker Fire Department by the firefighter who had attended, the individual stated it was their second or third shift as a volunteer firefighter with the department.
"I was in the kitchen finishing off my breakfast. I remember hearing the tones drop on the radio, I haven’t received any formal training on what to do in this situation. All I had to reference was an A4 sheet of paper, a step-by-step on how to respond and interact with Dispatch on the radio. I acknowledged the call for service and walked into the apparatus bay to start getting my bunker gear on,".
In an interview with DiscoverAirdrie, the individual said that before the incident they had no formalized training with regards to fire.
"I did one shift before this, where I got training from my peers from one of the captains on how to use a hydrant. But there wasn't any training on donning or [taking off] bunker gear. There wasn't any practical training regarding that sort of stuff, how to use a SCBA [self-contained breathing apparatus], anything like that,"
In the provincial OHS guide for firefighting, employers must ensure that training is provided to firefighters before they are allowed to engage in emergency operations. Further, the descriptions in the guideline as meant to be minimum standards to which a fire service must comply under occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation.
According to the individual's letter to the Village of Beiseker, because a decision was made to take the fire department's tender, there was no SCBA apparatus.
"Chief King and I approached the silo, and I was then instructed to climb the ladder, reach the hose towards the small open hatch, and spray water inside. After approximately three minutes, I felt dizzy, nauseous, and lightheaded. At this point, Chief King took over and stood at the bottom of the ladder, securing it."
The individual added that once the fire was contained, a fire investigator from Rocky View County arrived on the scene.
"I asked Chief King what was inside the silo, and she explained it was sulphur. She then asked me if I was okay, and I did say yes. However, at no point did Chief King suggest that I get assessed by EMS or go and see a doctor," the individual stated in their letter.
Neither the Beiseker Fire Department incident report nor an incident report by Rocky View County Fire Services makes mention of any injuries to personnel attending the fire.
In their interview with DiscoverAirdrie, the individual said they didn't have any lingering health effects after the initial call, but after nine months as a volunteer firefighter, the individual resigned.
"Even though I greatly enjoyed my experience as a volunteer firefighter. I am writing a statement about what happened to me during this incident to encourage a change and make the Beiseker Fire Department a safer place for the volunteers and the members of the public it serves," the individual concluded in their letter.
The incident was a topic followed up on by two other members of the fire department with Beiseker Fire Chief King, and Deputy Fire Chief Davies.
Three months after the incident, in November 2022, an operating guideline for the fire department approved by Fire Chief King stated that the department's policy is that, 'Every member of the BFD will wear SCBA when entering into an environment that [is] immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH).'
"All personnel shall wear an approved SCBA when entering an IDLH environment, IDLH environments may include structure fires and associated smoke, oxygen-deficient atmospheres, environments with hazardous gases (CO, H2S, etc.), or any environment that the responders are not confident in."
Other guidelines included policies for personal protective equipment (PPE) for road incidents, cone, flare, or sign deployment, progressive discipline, ladders and working at heights, and apparatus operation among others.
The documents provided by the Village of Beiseker do not indicate when the policies were originally written as the only date on the documents is the date the policies came into effect - November 1, 2022.
In June 2023, when a former volunteer inquired about written policies and procedures for the department and its members, they were told that there were currently no policies in place.
Other resignation letters from early fall 2023 noted similar concerns about a lack of procedures
"...I have offered to help develop processes but have been told to stay in my lane, and in the end, it makes it harder for me to accomplish what I need to do. For example, how do I train properly our crews on how to bed the hose if there is not a policy or procedure outlining how it is to be done?" one former member stated in their letter.
'On the fly learning'
Another former member of the Beiseker Fire Department who has since resigned said that the only group training that they participated in was approximately three to four months after they began volunteering. The former member said that during the first shift, a captain with years of experience would show them how to don equipment off and on, as well as how to do truck checks and operate the radio; however, no formalized training was offered.
"It was very much on-the-fly learning. If we didn't have a captain on [shift], there was no real set plan of who was in charge. What usually ended up happening is the senior firefighter ended up being in that position, whether they were qualified to be; because someone needed to be in charge."
An orientation package that is sent to new volunteer firefighters was obtained by DiscoverAirdrie. The package enumerates online courses firefighters can take to gain, 'the knowledge portion of 1001 (Firefighter level 1 and 2), 1002 (Pump Operator) and the NIMS courses with FEMA'.
"This is the basic Firefighting course that will be required for you to run into burning buildings. This gives you all the knowledge required to perform your duties as a firefighter. Each module has skill sheets that get signed off. As long as the captain is 1001 qualified (most of them) they can sign your skills sheets. Once they’re all completed they get submitted to DC [Deputy Chief] Davies, and then you can go into burning buildings."
There are no specific mentions of any other training in the package other than what the expectations of rookies are.
"Learn lots, finish your required courses, and be a good team player. Participate in all training and ask lots of questions."
The individual also alleged that they were sent to service calls on their own.
"I [was] told to go. If it was a medical [mental health] call and something happened - I could have ended up really in a big problem," they said. " I'm not a fully qualified firefighter... That's why I resigned, saying I can't do this. Sometimes you'd get brand new firefighters, firefighters that have no medical designation and it's like their third shift and there's nobody there that knows what to do. They don't know how to run the radio, they don't know how they need to talk to dispatch."
Alberta's OHS Code states that if a worker is working alone at a work site and if assistance is not readily available if there is an emergency or if the worker is injured or ill.
"An employer must provide an effective communication system consisting of radio, landline or cellular telephone, or some other effective means of electronic communication, that includes regular contact by the employer at intervals appropriate to the nature of the hazard associated with the worker’s work. The employer needs to make regular contact with workers working alone."
Despite several other members who alleged no structured training was offered for volunteers, the fire department's social media has stated that firefighters do participate in training. An early January 2024 Facebook post which called for recruits, stated that residency in the village is not mandatory, and while NFPA 1001 is preferred, training will be provided. Similar posts about the training of recruits were also shared in October 2023.
Not all resignations pointed to problems
Several resignation letters submitted to the Fire Department did not denote any concerns, but instead listed scheduling and personal reasons for needing to resign their volunteer post.
"It has been a great honour to serve the citizens of Beiseker, in addition to a considerable personal pride, knowing I helped make a difference. I greatly appreciate the opportunity BFD gave me to aid Albertans in need, as well as the invaluable experience within the fire service gained over the past year," one former member wrote.
Another member wrote that they, 'appreciate[ed] the warm friendships and like-minded volunteers and the opportunity to practice my skills as well as train members of the department.'
Other resignation letters noted that members would like the opportunity to return as volunteer members if their schedules allow it in the future.
Response of Village
In response to the multiple resignations and allegations by former volunteer firefighters with the department, the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) for the Village of Beiseker wrote in an October 2023 email that, the village acknowledged the receipt of the emails.
"We have been in contact with both the WCB [Workers Compensation Board of Alberta] and OH&S and are following up on any requirements to ensure we are in alignment with regulations and best practices. A full investigation into the allegations made by yourself and the people provided submissions has been completed and steps to address any legitimate concerns are in place."
In late November, during a closed session of the village's council meeting, the council agenda itinerary shows that the Beiseker Fire Department was discussed. However, a provision in the FOIP Act states that "the disclosure may unfairly damage the reputation of any person referred to in the record requested by the applicant," hence the documents from the meeting are accessible via FOIP. The fire department was also listed in the staff report section of the meeting.
According to the council agenda, Fire Chief King is also listed as the Deputy Mayor of the village.
In 2022, the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC), estimated that upwards of 70 per cent of Canadian firefighters are volunteers, amounting to over 90,000 men and women who volunteer for the role. In Alberta, over 9,000 individuals are volunteer firefighters.
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