Big spend on wildfire gear raises questions about Burnaby Fire Department oversight

18 February 2021

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CANADA – Nearly $435,000 worth of boots, coveralls, helmets, backpacks, water bottles and gloves bought by the Burnaby Fire Department last year for battling wildfires have yet to see any action – and they’re raising questions about the city’s oversight of the department.

The gear was ordered at the beginning of 2020, but its delivery was significantly delayed due to COVID, according to fire Chief Chris Bowcock.

He said firefighters’ regular turnout gear isn’t suitable for wildland firefighting, and the fire department had bought the gear in response to the “changing risk” of wildland fires on Burnaby Mountain.

“In order to prevent rapid uphill fire growth, our crews must be equipped with personal gear and tools that enable them to deploy quickly and work for immediate high effect within extremely hazardous conditions,” Bowcock said in an emailed response to questions from the NOW.

The cost of the new gear all but wiped out the city’s $520,000 budget for firefighters’ regular turn-out gear in 2020.

Bowcock said the purchases represented a one-year “program refocus” on wildland protective equipment.

Whether city staff or councillors were made aware of that “refocus” of a budget line item marked “turn out gear,” however, is unclear.

Coun. Colleen Jordan said she wasn’t aware of any plan to spend most of the turnout gear budget on wildland fire gear.

“I mean, it’s the annual allocation for turnout gear, right,” she said. “I guess if one year they take ($435,000) of that and put it into backpacks as a part of their turnout gear, we would never know that unless we dive into every line item like that, which there are thousands.”

Jordan noted the fire department “doesn’t report to anybody anymore,” referring to a move by Mayor Mike Hurley – a longtime Burnaby firefighter and union president who got full support from the local firefighters’ union during the 2018 election – to take the fire department off the city’s public safety committee three months after he was elected.

The motion by Hurley to have the department report “directly to council” instead of the committee –which advises council on public safety matters – was endorsed by the rest of council without discussion at a Jan. 28, 2019 regular council meeting.

For years before that move, the city’s fire chief or one of his deputies had attended the advisory committee’s bimonthly meetings and answered questions from councillors and citizen representatives about their department’s work and plans.

Hurley told the NOW in an interview in April 2020 that he had taken the fire department off the committee because fire Chief Joe Robertson had been off on leave and the department’s three deputy chiefs were splitting his duties.

“I tried to relieve them as much as I could knowing that there was just three of them doing those jobs,” Hurley had said at the time.

In that interview, he said the situation “could change” once a new chief was appointed.

Bowcock was appointed in June, and the fire department is still not reporting to the committee, but there are plans to change that, according to Hurley.

“There are plans to get them back on that committee for sure, as soon as (public safety director Dave) Critchley organizes that to happen, that should happen,” Hurley said in an interview this week.

As for the $435,000 spent on wildland firefighting gear, city communications manager Chris Bryan said all budget items for the fire department are routed through the same budget approvals and review process as any other department.

“This includes going through the financial management committee (which consists of five council members, as well as senior staff), which reviews budgets before forwarding them for council to approve,” Bryan wrote in an email.

When asked if the financial management committee was made aware the fire department intended to spend most of its turnout gear budget on wildland gear, however, Hurley (the chair of the committee) indicated it wasn’t really.

“I’m not sure that that part is clear, to be honest,” he said.

And when it comes to how often firefighters might be expected to use the gear, that isn’t clear either.

Repeated requests to find out how many wildland fires the fire department has fought over the last five years have gone unanswered – as has the question of who ordered the purchase of the new gear, which included $15,836 for water bottles, $70,634 for backpacks, $4,480 for leather gloves, $24,320 for helmets, $130,312 for boots and $188,800 for fire-resistant coveralls.

Bowcock said it was ordered early last year, which means the $435,000 “refocus” of the turnout-gear budget was made with neither the oversight of a chief nor the input of an advisory committee.

Follow Cornelia Naylor on Twitter @CorNaylor

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