Tofino’s volunteer first responders are feeling cramped in outdated facilities, so the town’s municipal council has agreed to pursue a $5 million grant to build a new emergency response building.
“The District’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a lack of safe and suitable emergency facilities to support both Tofino and the wider region. Emergency scenario planning has exposed a major risk in the District’s ability to respond to a large natural disaster on top of the current pandemic should the current fire hall/EOC building be unusable,” reads a report from Tofino’s fire chief and manager of protective services Brent Baker.
“Significantly, the fire hall is not a post-disaster building meaning that in the event of natural disaster such as an earthquake, the community’s rescue apparatus may well be inaccessible.”
In a presentation to council during January 26’s regular meeting, Baker explained that the facility, which he dubbed the Volunteer Emergency Response Building, would be a seismically sound, modern building located outside the town’s tsunami inundation zone on Industrial Way.
He said the new facility would house the Tofino Volunteer Fire Department, West Coast Inland Search and Rescue and Tofino’s Emergency Operations Centre as well as Emergency Social Services, Protective Services and Public Works staff.
“The Tofino Volunteer Emergency Response Building, as we’re calling it, is an approximately 10,000 sq. ft. upgrade to the existing search and rescue building and public works building,” he said.
He added that the Tofino Volunteer Fire Department has outgrown the current fire hall, located in the tsunami inundation zone downtown.
“The current facility is a repurposed building from the 1950’s that was relocated from radar hill to downtown Tofino around 1959,” he explained. “Firefighter turnout gear is constantly exposed to harmful exhaust and the training room only accommodates a maximum of 16 people while the Tofino volunteer fire department has averaged between 25 to 30 members for the last four years.”
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He noted the fire hall is currently home to the fire department and Emergency Operations Centre as well as the town’s Emergency Social Services and Protective Services departments.
“The age and previous use of the existing building means that it does not meet the modern seismic requirements while also being located on the edge of a tsunami inundation zone,” he said.
“Each year this building requires electrical upgrades and renovations to keep up with the needs of a modern fire department…Storage is extremely limited and every available space is being used. Maintaining safe distancing is not possible in most areas of the hall, which affects operations and responses during the pandemic.”
He said WISAR averages about 35 members between Tofino and Ucluelet and the crew’s current Search and Rescue building is an accessory building in the public works yard on Industrial Way.
“The building has no running water, a composting toilet and space heaters for warmth and drying equipment,” Baker explained. “With public works, the lack of covered storage in the yard impacts the longevity of several pieces of equipment that is sensitive to the rain and moisture. Lack of a proper exhaust extrication system, means that for health reasons, vehicles must be parked outdoors.”
He added that the public works department’s already cramped office and storage space is about to get even tighter as Tofino’s wastewater treatment plant project evolves.
“There is currently no office space for the wastewater treatment plan project team and the shared office space has proven to be very challenging during the pandemic as well,” he said.
He said the federal and provincial governments launched a new COVID-19 Resilience Infrastructure Stream in December as part of the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program in response to the effects of COVID-19 on communities across the province.
The estimated total gross project cost for the new Volunteer Emergency Response Building is about $5.37 million and the district will apply for a $5.14 million grant through the new funding program.
He added the roughly $225,000 not eligible for grant funding include costs associated with legal advice, furniture and relocating the existing public works building.
Council unanimously approved giving their staff the go ahead to apply for the grant and committed to any associated costs associated with the project that are ineligible for grant funding as well as cost overruns.
“I’m completely and fully in support of this. I myself have asked how do we run an EOC [Emergency Response Centre] if there’s an earthquake and there is no EOC to go to,” said Coun. Britt Chalmers. “The need has been there for as long as I’ve been in Tofino so it’s great that this has come up and that you guys pivoted so quickly.”
Coun. Duncan McMaster agreed.
“I’m glad to see that we’re going after this grant. I hope we get it and I think it’s a good idea,” he said.
Coun. Tom Stere said he was impressed with how quickly district staff produced the application just a month after the grant was announced.
“I have to commend staff on this one,” he said. “Incredible work on that. I fully support this opportunity and it does point once again to how, when a grant comes up, we’ve got to pivot quickly.”
He wondered though what would happen to the current fire hall if the grant to build a new facility was approved and Baker explained the hall’s fate would be up to future planning.
Acting mayor Coun. Al Anderson echoed his fellow councillors’ sentiments and added there would likely be a long list of possibilities for the hall.
“If we are successful, there will be many competing ideas about the old fire hall, but that’s in the future,” he said.