The Yukon government is making its biggest-ever investment in the territory’s firefighters.
On top of this year’s budget, another $1.9 million is being dropped into the Fire Marshal’s Office for territory-wide training, new equipment and to double the number of deputy fire marshals from two to four.
It’s one part of a bold move by Community Services Minister Elaine Taylor. Taylor announced over the weekend that she will reverse her predecessor’s decision to centrally manage all fire services in the territory.
At around this time last year, then-minister Archie Lang shocked delegates at the annual Association of Yukon Communities meeting with his announcement.
Lang’s rationale was that significant cost increases from new Occupational Health and Safety regulations had been putting extra stress on remote fire departments across the territory for about six years. The departments said they need more staff, funds and training. But the communities’ fire fighters were not happy with the idea of being managed from Whitehorse.
“The men and the women of the service are very committed, they’re very passionate about their fire departments, they’re very passionate about improving the delivery of fire services and want to ensure that whatever we do moving forward, that we ensure the full autonomy of those municipal fire departments,” said Taylor as she made the funding announcement outside the Golden Horn Fire Department Tuesday. “So certainly we respect that desire and so, in moving forward, we’re moving forward with a two-pronged approach.”
So along with the injection of cash to the Fire Marshal’s Office, which conducts most of the training and fire awareness across the territory and is responsible for volunteer fire departments in 16 unincorporated communities, Taylor’s department will also negotiate funding for fire services, paid directly to local municipalities.
This money will be offered on top of existing funds, said Dawson City Fire Chief Jim Regimbal. He’s also president of the Association of Yukon Fire Chiefs, and he helped push for the reversal of Lang’s announcement.
It remains unclear how big the new top-up will be. That will be decided through meetings with municipal officials over the next few moths, said Taylor.
However, not all emergency service workers in the territory were included in the funding frenzy.
Local search and rescue teams have asked for a very similar funding scheme for years, without much response, said John Mitchell, president of the Klondike Search and Rescue Association.
Dawson’s searchers want special training to perform rescues from steep embankments and swift-moving waters. Instead, they’ve only received training to do general ground searches.
Mitchell encountered Taylor on the streets of Dawson City over the weekend, while she was attending this year’s Association of Yukon Communities’ meeting to announce the new municipal fire funding scheme.
He asked her for a meeting, and to her credit, she obliged and listened, said Mitchell.
That’s a pretty big change, he added.
And it appears like there will be some changes in the future for search and rescue, he said.
A new, regional position is expected to help offer more specific training, closer to home, Mitchell said he was told.
“But the proof is in the pudding,” he said. “Apparently there are changes on the way, I just wish we knew what they were. They recognized there is a need with search and rescue and disaster services. But it’s all still up in the air. Right now, there is no clear plan how this is going to go. And there is no indication yet that needs like training will really be met.”
Meanwhile, risks for volunteers like those on Mitchell’s team continue to rise, he said.
Along with ambitious but inexperienced summer tourists, more mining and exploration activities around the Klondike mean even more “people in the bush,” he said. And things like drowning rates in the territory continue to rise, he added.
“It’s about protecting the people that protect us,” said Fire Marshal Dennis Berry during the funding announcement back at Golden Horn.
And while that’s true for the more than 300 people who work for fire services in the territory, the same is not yet true for people like Mitchell and his crew.
Paramedics are also unaffected by the funding announcement, said Taylor.
Nothing will change for ambulance services which, like search and rescue and the Fire Marshal’s Office, is run centrally through the territorial department.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at