By Adam Williams
Kamloops This Week
If your house is on fire, does a volunteer fire department have the authority to put it out?
A summer meeting with the Office of the Fire Commissioner has officials in the Thompson-Nicola Regional District asking that very question.
Volunteer fire detachments have been protecting homes within the TNRD for decades.
But, as the societies governing them learned at a training course this summer, there’s questions about whether their volunteers have the legal jurisdiction to enter private properties for the purpose of fighting fires.
“For the past 30 years, according to the Office of the Fire Commissioner, when a fire happens and they’re called on site, if you’re a society, you have no authority to enter the site,” said Ron Storie, the TNRD’s director of community services.
“We’re trying to confirm that that may or may not be the case.”
Twenty-eight fire departments operate in the TNRD, some managed by the regional district and others by municipalities and First Nations bands. Six — those in 70 Mile House, South Green Lake, Loon Lake, Little Fort, McLure and Tobiano — are governed by societies.
It’s those six — the ones not governed by bylaws from some level of government — that are concerned about being left without an authority to point to should they be challenged by a property owner. Storie said the departments will continue to provide fire protection as the TNRD and its legal counsel sort out the concerns.
“It is business as usual,” Storie said. “But, again, it’s probably stricter documentation. When they go to the door, if someone is there, they’re certainly going to ask and they’ll never do anything that people are averse to.”
Contacted by KTW this week, the Office of the Fire Commissioner clarified the issue via a statement.
“During a meeting in May 2016, the fire commissioner pointed out that, as part of their normal administrative process, fire departments should ensure that they know where they derive the powers they are exercising in the delivery of fire services,” it reads.
“It was pointed out that for the fire departments outside of local government authority, they need to identify what powers/authority exist and where it is found.”
Departments have been bringing their concerns to the TNRD in the form of letters and the board of directors received advice on how to proceed from its lawyer at the recent committee of the whole meeting. It appears the volunteer societies may need to go to each property in their service area to obtain consent to enter the property should the need arise.
Paula Cousins, president of the McLure Volunteer Firefighters and Recreation Society, said that while the risk is probably relatively low, her society doesn’t want its firefighters to bear an unnecessary burden.
“The risk is the liability around, if we were to go on to private property without jurisdiction, if there was damage to that property, if there was an insurance claim, that loophole might become problematic,” she said.
“I don’t know that it’s significant at this point, but it is worth closing.”
Mac Gregory, executive director of the Volunteer Firefighters Association of B.C., told KTW his association recently became aware of the issue of access for society-run fire departments.
He has asked his association’s president to take up the issue with the Office of the Fire Commissioner, as it would impact fire departments provincewide, not only those in the TNRD.
Storie said some society fire departments have expressed interest in being taken under the umbrella of the TNRD, as regional detachments, to address the issue.