A recent rescue of a man trapped in his truck for several days near Sayward has raised questions of what happens when members of small volunteer fire departments are unavailable.
On Nov. 13, the Campbell River Fire Department, rather than Sayward’s department, responded to the scene about 10 km south of Sayward where a hunter discovered a truck had gone off the highway and down a slope.
The truck driver, Duncan Moffat, 23, had been missing and was trapped in the vehicle for what is believed to be five days. Firefighters were able to extricate him from the vehicle, and he was airlifted to Victoria to recover in the trauma unit from dehydration and injuries, including a broken femur.
While Sayward has two fire halls, there are only 11 members to serve a community of about 350 people along with the surrounding Sayward Valley, which includes another 700 residents. Mayor John MacDonald says the department numbers are a concern, though he recognizes the efforts of the firefighters who do volunteer.
“I support 100 per cent all the firefighters that are on call,” said Mayor John MacDonald. “If they’re in town, they out there [on the scene].”
However, many of them, while on call via pager, are on duty at their jobs, often out of town in camps.
As mayor, MacDonald recognizes the challenges for an aging community that go beyond the fire department.
“There’s so many seniors moving in, and there’s not enough young people to do all the services,” he said.
Mac Gregory, executive director of the Volunteer Firefighters Association of B.C., says while not widespread around the province, being short-staffed can be a challenge in some communities. He echoes MacDonald’s point that, in such cases, volunteers are at jobs where they may not be able to get away if they are paged for a fire department call.
“The majority of the firefighters, the volunteers, would be on a job somewhere,” he said.
Many employers will free up member from their jobs if there is a call, but other workplaces cannot function with a disruption to staffing. Some fire departments, Gregory says, at least have enough members to provide backup and avoid a situation like the one that arose in Sayward.
“A lot depends on the number of volunteers a department has,” he said. “Generally, they try to get as many as they can, so they can overcome the shortfall situation.”
While Campbell River firefighters responded to the scene, Fire Chief Thomas Doherty emphasizes the department does not have a mutual aid agreement with the Village of Sayward or the Sayward Valley, which is in the Strathcona Regional District, primarily because of the distance between the two communities, almost 80 kilometres – a point also made by MacDonald.
“We’re so far away from Campbell River,” the Sayward mayor said. “It seems like it’s close, but it’s not.”
The Campbell River Fire Department does have mutual agreements with departments in more populated areas to the south, such as Oyster River and the Comox Valley.
Regarding the truck accident, the Sayward department had been dispatched by 911 multiple times when the Campbell River department was advised of the rescue.
“This isn’t a typical situation, but it does happen … especially with the small volunteer departments,” Doherty said. “This is an unfortunate situation where they weren’t able to respond.”
The Campbell River Fire Department sent an engine and a small squad unit. The members are trained in road rescue. All six full-time members that were dispatched had been trained in technical high-angle road rescue for vehicles, meaning they have a background in attending road rescues at sites with steep slopes and low embankments.
Doherty thinks the Sayward case means the departments, smaller communities and the regional district probably need to have a discussion about these kinds of rescue scenarios and formalize any kind of potential agreement that develops.
“There are different avenues to set up different agreements, especially for regional rescue-type services,” he said. “Those are something that we’ll be taking a look here with the SRD, Sayward and some of the smaller departments around us…. It’s going to take some discussions with them.”
The situation like the one that happened in Sayward, according to Gregory, while not common, can happen. He emphasizes that volunteer departments in a small remote communities can face challenges in even getting recruits as well as the availability of members that have work commitments.
“The major problem in smaller-populated rural areas is just keeping the numbers up,” he said. “Everybody’s always looking for more volunteers.”
Already, MacDonald says the local volunteer fire chief has informed him another recruit has stepped forward, but the mayor would like to see several more people from Sayward and the surrounding valley join the department.
“It’s very much a concern of mine, it’s very much a concern of my council,” he said. “I’d love to see about 20 people on the volunteer fire department…. Then we could cover pretty well everything.”