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False alarms draining resources from Tofino Volunteer Fire Department and putting community at risk

“It is very physically exhausting.”

Sending volunteer firefighters racing towards an emergency that doesn’t exist is draining Tofino’s resources and could now drain the wallets of those causing false alarms.

Tofino has announced new fines in an effort to decrease the amount of repeat offenders whose fire alarms are connected to monitoring companies that immediately notify 911 when an alarm is triggered, most commonly resorts and vacation rental operations.

One false alarm will not elicit a charge, however a second false alarm within a 12-month period will cost $150 and a third offence within that same period will cost $200.

Tofino Fire Chief Brent Baker told the Westerly News that the Volunteer Fire Brigade responds to roughly 20-30 false alarms each year, accounting for about 15 per cent of its total callouts. He said each one of those unnecessary callouts creates risky situations for responders and residents as the fire department races to the scene.

“You’re driving at quicker speeds, you’re dealing with pedestrians, cyclists, all sorts of different traffic; so it puts all the firefighters at risk and it puts other vehicle operators and pedestrians all at risk of something happening during that period while you’re responding,” he said. “When you look at false alarms and the fact that there are so many repeat offenders, this is a level of risk that very much has potential to be controlled through either education or maintenance of fire alarm monitoring equipment.”

He added that along with putting the community at risk, false alarm responses are also draining for the town’s volunteer firefighters.

“The adrenaline is going. You have responders trying to, as quickly and as safely as possible, get to the fire hall so that they can turn around and drive back out to the scene,” he said. “There’s an absolute fatigue factor when you get sent out for any call at any time of the day, but particularly at night…There is an adrenaline dump after all these calls. If you wake up for a call in the middle of the night, odds are you’re probably going to be up for a couple hours. Even if you’re out and back to your residence in 20 minutes, you’re probably not getting back to sleep for the next few hours, so it definitely is draining on resources.”

He added firefighters often don’t have an opportunity to recover before heading to their regular day-jobs in the morning.

“It is very physically exhausting,” he said. “Everybody joins because they want to do what they can to help out the community, but it is frustrating when you are getting out and exerting your energy and your time and taking time away from your family for an emergency response where no emergency response is required.”

He emphasized that the fines are not directed towards homeowners with residential smoke alarms, but to property owners who engage the services of an alarm monitoring company that immediately notifies 911.

He suggested Tofino’s resorts are the town’s most consistent source of false alarm and said it’s been a struggle to get those resorts to understand how serious the unnecessary callouts their causing are.

“We’ve been to a particular resort a number of times where management or ownership says, ‘Turn that exhaust fan off in the kitchen, it’s noisy and disturbing the guests.’ Well, when you turn off that exhaust fan while you’re cooking, that smoke has nowhere to go so then the alarm sounds and we get sent over there,” he said. “That’s completely controllable…People need to understand the effect of their decisions. When you’ve been to a property 20 times over a three-year period, there is definitely an education piece that is missing.”

He hopes the new fines raise awareness and drive the message home that false alarms are dangerous and avoidable.

“We’re really hoping that people won’t just chalk it up as the cost of doing business,” he said. “Some days, we’re talking two days in a row that we’re going to the same property for a false alarm so, either the education is not being passed on from the individuals we speak to, or the education is there and somebody’s telling them not to act on it. We can’t really say which it is, but the next step is to implement fines and see if that has any effect.”

He added taxpayers are also on the hook as the municipality also pays each time the crew is sent off.

“For every firefighter that shows up for these calls, the municipality pays $15 per person,” he said adding Tofino’s firefighters choose to donate that money back into the community. “The firefighters themselves don’t receive a dime for any of the work that they do.”

He reiterated that the new fines are only applicable to specific false alarms and that no one should ever hesitate to call 911 in an emergency.

“We do take every call to alarm activation very seriously and we don’t want anyone to ever think for a second that they shouldn’t call 911 if they’re concerned. Absolutely call 911,” he said. “We are strictly talking about incidences where the alarm goes off and there’s really no reason for it or it could have been avoided. We really don’t want people to be thinking about fees or fines versus life-safety.”

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Andrew Bailey

About the Author: Andrew Bailey

I arrived at the Westerly News as a reporter and photographer in January 2012.
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