A recent article in the Regina Leader-Post and Saskatoon StarPhoenix told the story of a 1973 apartment building fire in Regina, one of the most devastating in the province, which took nine lives.
As well as providing a look back at a historic event, the article provided a comparison point to look at how things have changed in the world of firefighting in the relatively short time since then. Firefighting equipment is far more sophisticated today. Knowledge of how fire spreads has advanced. And, the building code has given us safer homes; the main reason for so many deaths in that 1973 fire was the lack of separation between the floors of the apartment building. Smoke filled the hallways and seeped into apartments before people could be rescued by firefighters with ladders at the upper-storey windows.
One thing that hasn’t changed in firefighting, however, is how fast trucks and firefighters can get to a fire. We haven’t mastered teleporting, so fire trucks still have to go down city streets and along winding crescents to get to a fire, in much the same way they did 40 years ago.
And that is the main reason why we need a second -- and perhaps, third -- fire hall in Prince Albert. As our city has grown, the amount of time to get a truck and firefighters from the single, central fire hall to many of the residential areas has become dangerously long. And as we as a community, and city council as our leaders, wait and wait to do anything about this situation, we’re playing a risky game.
It’s not as if successive city councils haven’t known about this problem. From the mid- 1980s on, at least three fire chiefs have made the point; response times to the largely residential area of Carlton Park and Crescent Acres are not within national standards. In the late 1980s, the firefighters association was also actively pushing city council to make a commitment to a second fire hall. With the further development of the West Hill in more recent years, this area is now in the same situation as those to the east: a truck leaving from 15th Street and Central Avenue cannot make it to your home within the timeframe that would best allow for fire containment, and preservation of both belongings, and of lives.
Adding to the risk is the change to construction practices. While the building code has, in many ways, made our homes safer than ever, new building materials create new fire risks. As current fire Chief Les Karpluk explained to council last week, the type of trusses used to hold up the roof of a newly constructed house allow for quick expansion of a fire and create an added danger to firefighters who arrive even a few minutes later than they should. These are exactly the kind of homes to be found in the outer areas of our city, where response time is longer than it should be.
Yet we continue to disregard these warnings, and play a game of chance. Fortunately, there are relatively few fires in our city, so we tend to forget the devastation they can cause. If we are lucky as individuals, we may never in a lifetime have to call on fire services. We take the existing fire hall and services for granted, confident they will be there is we should need them.
It’s also the case that building a fire hall is not nearly as exciting as building a new recreational facility, the kind that people will rally around to raise funds, or attend on numerous happy occasions. And so another year goes by, and the city grows a bit bigger, and there is still only one fire hall from which to dispatch any help.
Failing to consider our current, and future, needs for fire protection is a bit like choosing to not buy fire insurance on your home. There’s a pretty good chance that your house won’t catch on fire this year, so why pay the money for insurance? You could use that money for something a lot more fun that buying an insurance policy. But, there is also a small, but potentially devastating, chance that your house will catch on fire. And if that happens, you will feel very smart to have had insurance in place.
So it is with fire services for our community. For the past 30 years, as fire chiefs and firefighters have warned us that we need to spend the money for another hall, another truck, some more equipment, and a few more firefighters to staff another hall, Prince Albert has effectively said, “No, we don’t want any more insurance. We’ll take our chances with the limited policy we have right now, thank you.”
It surprises me that this attitude prevails: one would think that self-preservation, if not community need, would guide council. In recent years, five out of nine council members lived in the area outside of the recommended response time zone, or in the newer parts of Crescent Acres/Carlton Park. For our current council, it’s pretty close to the same, depending on how you view the West Hill situation for fire response. It would only take one serious fire in the eastern or western residential areas of our city to create a public relations firestorm, as constituents vented their anger for council’s lack of foresight.
Sure, it would be nice to have a new arena in Prince Albert. It would also be nice to have a new swimming centre, another library, and a whole lot of other things. But before we spend the money on any more amusements, we should make sure our fire insurance is up-to-date. We need a plan, and then quick action, to provide adequate fire protection for the whole city.
Barb Gustafson, a lifelong resident of Prince Albert, is a former reporter, editor and publisher at the Daily Herald. email@example.com