Eyebrows were raised last week when it became known the provincial government was drastically reducing what its spends annually on new firefighting vehicles. There are 60 brigades on a list seeking new vehicles, and it appears the wait for many of them just got a lot longer.
Some of these vehicles have been in service for three decades and are long past the point where they can be relied upon to respond to anything but minor emergencies. If you're a volunteer firefighter and your brigade is in this situation, you have good reason to be concerned, but you probably shouldn't be surprised.
The provincial government, awash in oil money and year-after-year surpluses, has invested record amounts into pumper trucks and firefighting equipment.
In 2011, for example, the province cost-shared the purchase of 22 new fire trucks, all of which were badly needed. There were also countless funding announcements relating to the purchase of firefighting equipment such as bunker suits and breathing apparatuses. In the interest of full disclosure, we should also point out that it was an election year, with the governing Progressive Conservatives and Premier Kathy Dunderdale going on to win handily in the October vote.
In fairness, we can't ignore the fact that the Trinity-Conception region has benefitted greatly from this largesse, which was confirmed following a quick scan of The Compass archives. New firefighting vehicles were delivered to Carbonear, Bay de Grave and Whitbourne in recent years, and the brigade in Harbour Grace is expected to take delivery of an impressive new pumper/rescue truck next month valued at more than $350,000. The department in Bay de Verde is also anxiously awaiting the delivery of its new pumper.
And late last year, Trinity-Bay de Verde MHA Charlene Johnson promised that the newly merged Cavendish and Whiteway fire department will receive a new pumper truck within three years. The department currently has two pumpers, and both have been in service for roughly 30 years.
"When you come together, we're more willing to step up to the plate and do that bit extra," Johnson stated at the time.
The province contributed - or will contribute - greatly to these purchases, in some cases up to 90 per cent.
But times have changed. Payments under the Atlantic Accord have ended, amounting to a reduction in revenue of $536.1 million this fiscal year, and extended shutdowns are planned for both the Terra Nova and White Rose oil production platforms. In bringing down the 2012 provincial budget last week, Finance Minister Tom Marshall forecast a deficit of $258.4 million for 2012-13. A return to surplus is anticipated by 2014-15.
In light of this, it was inevitable that the government would begin to curtail spending, and investments into new fire trucks was an easy target. With three years to go before the next election, the government obviously felt it could tighten the purse strings without exposing itself to any significant political fallout. A short lull in the number of fire truck dedication ceremonies could be tolerated, it was likely felt.
So instead of a steady stream of funding announcements, the province plans to cost-share the purchase of just seven fire trucks this year, and the budget for new equipment has also been halved.
Municipal Affairs Minister Kevin O'Brien, who oversees Fire and Emergency Services, offered an interesting explanation last week. He emphasized that the flurry of truck purchases last year was not a political move, but a reflection of the province's fantastic financial position.
Moving forward, he said the government has to be more strategic in its spending, and he believes this should include a continued emphasis on the regionalization of fire protection services.
"We have to determine exactly how many vehicles that we do need in the province before we invest too heavily and invest in the wrong places," O'Brien told CBC News.
We couldn't agree more. If we have to live within our means, lets take a closer look at things. The Bay de Grave regional fire service, which is based in South River, and the Cavendish-Whiteway brigade, appears to be good models for the province to follow.
— Terry Roberts