City funds hazmat team, but no Victoria firefighters on specialized unit

Hazmat unit would welcome members from Victoria department: CRD

The only full-time fire department in the region whose members have not joined the Capital Regional District’s hazardous materials response team may consider joining the specialty unit next year.

“We are working towards it,” said Jeff Lambert, who took over as chief of the Victoria Fire Department last summer. “There are a lot of other things our department, like every other department, manage and wrestle with (to meet) the expectations of our citizens. To do everything for everybody is hard sometimes.”

The region’s 13 municipalities and three electoral areas financially contribute to the CRD Hazmat Response Unit’s operating budget, which for 2012 is $290,000. This year Victoria taxpayers are chipping in $65,454. In 2011, they contributed $64,004.

The team would welcome Victoria firefighters, said Travis Whiting, who oversees the hazmat service as the CRD’s senior manager of protective services. At present, he is confident the unit is able to respond to incidents throughout the region.

“I don’t think the program lacks for anything in regards to that,” Whiting said, noting that team members still work with Victoria firefighters. “Just like every municipality (in the region) we practise, we train in their municipalities, and we respond anywhere that the call comes within the region.”

Before Lambert decides to supply firefighters to the unit, the potential cost implications of doing so must be considered, he said.

If the department is operating with minimum staffing when a hazmat call comes in from another municipality, off-duty Victoria firefighters may need to be called in, the fire chief said.

“We’d have to have benchmarks in there, a process that says if we’re below a certain staffing level we can’t send people off a shift.”

There could also be budget implications if his team works overtime to train with the regional unit. There are six training sessions a year.

“It’s just that everything comes with a price, and it’s usually time. It’s reality for us,” Lambert said. “We’re getting to the point with call volume that it’s really hard to train on shift, so for us, any training has to be done off-shift. It’s a huge ticket.”

There are other items the chief wants to check off his to-do list before he makes a decision. Negotiations on a new collective agreement for firefighters begin later this year.

“That plays a part of it,” Lambert said.

Still, additional training and expertise gained from being part of the regional hazmat team would “build intrinsic value in our department,” he said. “It’s such a good service. It brings fire departments together from across the region.”

emccracken@vicnews.com