BONNYVILLE – Formed in 1996, the Bonnyville Regional Fire Authority (BRFA) brought in a new fire chief for the third time in its history late in 2021, with BRFA Regional Chief Dan Heney completing his first full year in the position in 2022.
“Only time will tell whether or not [the new hire] was worth the time and effort,” joked Heney, who presented a year in review to the Town of Bonnyville council on Feb. 28.
Heney shared the important milestones, statistics and accomplishments of BRFA members throughout 2022.
Last year was the first year since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that day-to-day operations of the BRFA were not significantly affected by public health measures, which afforded staff and volunteers the opportunity to get out into the community far more often than in previous years.
During the warmer months, BRFA’s barbeque and volunteers attended 25 community functions, including the first Station Five open house since 2019. Grand openings for two brand new fire halls, Station 7 Fort Kent and Station 8 Ardmore, were also held.
The organization also grew in several of its divisions. The BRFA welcomed a new mascot to its public relations department, Terry the Traumasaurus.
The EMS Division’s previous division chief of medical operations, Alicia Krawchuk, moved to take on the role of regional deputy fire chief.
In 2022, the BRFA also created a new position within the EMS division, assistant division chief of EMS, and added a second night shift chair to the 911 Centre due in part to call volumes.
According to Heney, the addition to the 911 Dispatch Services was also a preemptive move in anticipation of servicing the City of Cold Lake’s emergency calls. Last year, the BRFA won an RFP bid to provide the City of Cold Lake with 911 call answering for fire and Community Peace Officer (CPO) dispatching and administrative services.
The Board of Directors for the BRFA also had a busy year of negotiations in 2022.
“We completed negotiations with AHS (Alberta Health Services) to remain the local EMS provider. It is a 19-month deal,” Heney told council. “We also completed a freely negotiated agreement with HSAA, the Health Services Association of Alberta.”
Agreements with both AHS and the union for the BRFA’s paramedics will be in place until March 31, 2024.
The Fire Authority also began rolling out the Resilient Minds program and Before Operational Stress program for its staff and members.
“Both of which are mental health awareness programs designed to ensure that all of our members are kept well aware of the risks and the insidious nature of trauma that they may experience on the job,” added Heney.
Focusing in on the Fire Services division of the BRFA, Heney listed new equipment that was ordered and is scheduled to arrive over the next few years.
“Six new fire trucks were ordered. That's five for the MD [of Bonnyville] and one for the Town. Two pumpers for the MD, two single axle tankers for the MD, and two tandem axle tankers, one for the Town and one for the MD."
Heney said, “By locking the pricing and making an order this year, we believe that we've kept the price on those units down significantly.”
The BRFA also donated a significant amount of used bunker gear to Firefighters Without Borders last year. From the information Heney received, it’s believed that Bonnyville equipment made its way to small fire services in South America.
Over the last year, two stations welcomed new fire chiefs. Coltin Batke is now the deputy fire chief for Station 5 Bonnyville and Robert Norton is the fire chief for Station 6 La Corey.
The year also came with significant recognition for BRFA members, who received the Resiliency Runs Deep Award presented by the Bonnyville and District Chamber of Commerce.
In addition, three current members and one retired member of the BRFA were awarded the Queen's Platinum Jubilee medal for outstanding contributions to the province. Those individuals include Heney, BRFA office manager Irene Welecki, retired Regional Fire Chief Brian McEvoy, and a member of Station 5 who volunteers with cadets and refereeing, Colin Atkinson.
BRFA fire statistics
While the BRFA saw a decrease for some events, there was an overall increase in the types of calls that the fire department responded to over the year, explained Heney.
Wildland incidents saw a significant decrease, which was attributed to the weather and rain that we received last year, said Heney. In 2022, fire crews responded to 55 wildland events, compared to 111 in 2021.
On the other hand, volunteer firefighters saw a significant increase in medical calls to assist EMS. BRFA firefighters attended 149 medical assist calls last year, an increase of 39 per cent.
“One of the areas that I like to talk about the most is highlighting the amount of time that our volunteers put into the fire service,” Heney told council.
“Over the course of the year, a little over 9,000 hours of emergency response time, a little over 5,400 hours in training and just under 2,000 hours in public education and fire prevention time for a total of 16,532 hours over the year,” said the chief.
An unusual trend was spotted in the 2022 calls for ambulance services. Last year, Bonnyville ambulance services saw a 29 per cent decrease in emergency calls and a 13 per cent increase in interfacility transfers.
“There was a switch in the numbers for transfers and emergency calls. A big piece of that is that the more transfers we send staff on, the less time that they're in town and able to respond to emergency calls,” said Heney, explaining the significant drop in emergency calls.
Heney also pointed out that the strain on ambulance services has caused ripple effects to other BRFA divisions.
“I would suggest this is why we are seeing our fire stations responding to more medical calls. There are just that many more opportunities where there aren't ambulances available.”
The BRFA’s 911 division had a nearly two per cent increase in calls last year. “It's still a staggering number of calls that they answer every year, just under 60,000 calls,” Heney pointed out.
The 911 Services dispatches fire and CPO services for 18 area municipalities. A little over 4,500 total dispatch events were processed start to finish last year. Almost 3,000 of those were fire-related calls.
Provincial initiatives for non-emergency transfers
Last year, the Bonnyville Healthcare Centre was selected as one of four facilities by AHS to trial a pilot project for alternative transport. The pilot project was geared towards finding other transportation options for patients needing to travel to other facilities that were considered non-emergent.
Low acuity transfers, lower emergency transfers or non-emergency transfers, by ambulances have been clogging up the system for a decade or more, said Heney.
Coun. Neil Langridge asked the fire chief if the province’s initiatives have seen any results so far.
“We actually have, considering the high number of transfers that we saw in 2022,” confirmed Heney.
During the last four months of 2022, the ambulance service saw about a 12 per cent decrease in interfacility transfers.
“So even though the numbers are really high, we're seeing the numbers trend in the right direction and it's going to be very interesting to see,” Heney added.