Sitting in a guest chair sipping a coffee, View Royal Fire Chief Paul Hurst comments on how his new office feels somewhat like a “fish bowl.”
Accustomed to being mostly out of public view at the old fire hall on Four Mile Hill, he now has a clear view out onto Island Highway, where thousands of residents and commuters alike pass by daily. Hurst’s airy, bright front office reflects the design of the whole front of the new hall: huge glass doors and windows allow the public to see fire vehicles standing at the ready.
“We’ve had so many residents come through already and take a look,” the chief says. “There’s a high sense of civic pride in this building.”
The $7.49-million public safety building, so called for the fact it combines the functions of fire protection, building inspection, bylaw enforcement and emergency program management, has been operational nearly two weeks.
In the first week at the new site firefighters responded to 25 or 30 calls, about average, Hurst says. The very first, he notes, was attending to a pair of West Shore RCMP officers who had ingested exhaust fumes during a Colwood rescue.
The building is the culmination of years of planning, research, design and of course, a public referendum in the fall of 2012 that saw roughly 64 per cent of voters say yes to the town borrowing almost $5.5 million for the project. The referendum was forced that summer, after the town received roughly 1,300 responses in opposition to a $7.9-million loan, almost double the number of responses required under the Alternative Approval Process.
From the street alone, the building is eye-catching and modern-looking. But it is equal parts form and function, with a warm, dry place inside for virtually everything – not least of which the vehicles and other rescue equipment.
Roughly centred in a bowl carved out of a piece of land that formerly housed three old homes, the building has or will eventually offer built-in training opportunities for things like high-angle rescues, aerial truck hose practice, rappelling and enclosed-space firefighting.
Gone are the days of having to use a wing of Victoria General Hospital for aerial work, or finding places around View Royal that were quiet enough to practice certain aspects of the job.
“The guys are really excited,” Hurst says of the new on-site options. “We no longer have to train firefighters on streets and in neighbourhoods … It’s going to take this department to the next level.”
Other features built into the new hall will profoundly affect the ability for the fire department to respond in a timely fashion.
Down an upstairs hallway from the gym are four dorm-style bunk rooms, where firefighters will sleep overnight and be available to spring into action immediately.
Off the same hallway is an outside pathway leading to what will eventually be four side-by-side bachelor apartments. They’ll be offered up to four volunteer firefighters – they’ll pay rent and likely be assigned groundskeeping duties, Hurst says – who will be available overnight as well.
“From a service delivery point of view, this is a game-changer,” the chief says of the potential to have eight firefighters on site overnight, who can roll a unit out of the hall in 60 to 80 seconds, rather than having to wait until a full crew arrives from their homes. “View Royal residents will definitely notice a difference.”
Standing in the turnout gear room, set to 24 C to help dry equipment quickly and negatively pressurized to keep in particulate contaminants, Troy Mollin, a firefighter who serves as the town’s emergency program officer, can’t say enough about the new facility.
“It’s a big upgrade; it’s actually surreal to be in the building right now,” he says.
“There’s so many opportunities going forward to improve all our programs, including emergency management, our training and the administration of our department. That was the purpose of the design, to allow room for growth.”
Asked what he likes about the new hall, fellow firefighter Gary Faykes, who is the town’s building inspector, jokes that it’s a kilometre closer to his home so he can get here quicker.
“I think it’s a great building to respond from; everything has been set up perfectly,” he says. “From a building official side, I love it because the building is very code compliant. It was very well designed and it’s been great working in it, from the beginning groundbreaking right up to occupancy.”
Creating an oasis for times of crisis
With its own reserve of truck fuel, propane and a massive generator, the new View Royal public safety building has been built to “post-disaster” standards, meaning it’s designed to continue to function even if an earthquake or other disaster takes other emergency services out of commission.
With a large classroom and adjacent boardroom on the premises, the building is designed to function as the town hall in the event the municipal building is rendered useless, says Hurst.
And with a commercial-size kitchen on site available to keep people fed, the building would definitely be a place of comfort in the event of an emergency.
Controversy over expenditure has largely dissipated
View Royal Mayor David Screech knows well the amount of criticism the town and council took over the project before the referendum. He says the “bitterness and division in the community” has evaporated somewhat since 2012.
“There was a lot of concern from some people that the building was too grand for View Royal,” says the mayor, who was a councillor at the time. “But when you tour that building – and a lot of people have so far – there’s no unused space in there. It’s been designed very well for the fire department’s needs, with a little room for expansion as we move down the road.”
Not only did everyone involved with the project help keep it on budget, he says, compared to other new halls in the region such as Central Saanich and the DND hall on Esquimalt Road, “I honestly think that our residents have got very, very good value.”
He believes the town is now housing its firefighters in a new facility more befitting of their role in the community, as opposed to the previous building. Screech points out that in the leadup to the referendum, volunteer firefighters went door-to-door in the community speaking with fellow residents about the project and answering questions.
“The firefighters themselves deserve a huge amount of credit,” he says.
Bittersweet goodbye to old hall for chief
Hurst admits he felt a bit of an emotional twinge upon stepping out of the old building and assuming operations, with no interruption to service, in the new one.
“My dad was a volunteer firefighter,” he says, “and I’ve been coming to that hall since I was five years old.”
Now 44, Hurst joined the volunteer ranks as a fresh-faced teen in 1984 and was hired on full-time in ’87. Since then he’s seen many a volunteer firefighter come and go through the old hall.
“The old adage ‘if these walls could talk’ comes to mind,” he says. Around 280 volunteers have served on fire duty since View Royal’s inception, 100 since Hurst has been involved.
“It’s a bit of a weird feeling; you kind of see this orphan sitting on the hill,” he says of the old building. That said, he isn’t looking back too wistfully.
He studied blueprints for three years leading up to the move, knowing what was planned and helping guide the process. Still, he says, the finished product is “far more than I expected. I had no idea it would come together like this.”
Well aware of who breathes life to this sparkling new facility, he gives a final shout-out to the 36 volunteer firefighters who serve their community 24/7.
“The volunteers deserve every square inch of this building for what they give.”
Meanwhile, a public grand opening for the new building is tentatively planned for sometime in May. The old hall will be torn down, likely later this summer, and the land is already on the market, Screech says.