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Incorporation: Fire and Water – Extreme Hazard

    Editorial & Opinions, Governance & Politics    August 9, 2017

One of the reasons I will vote Yes is that there are problems that cannot be fixed under our current system. It doesn’t matter how optimistic one is. There are structural impediments built in today that no amount of hard work or co-operation or good will can fix. Let me describe just one.

We have a fire department operated by what is called an improvement district, an archaic entity that has some of the smatterings of local government but that was really intended for tiny operations like three farmers sharing a well and a pumphouse, not performing important public safety tasks in a community of 10,000 strong. The fire district’s purpose – and this comes from legislation and what are called letters patent – is to prevent and if necessary suppress damage from uncontrolled fires. To fight fires, you need specialized equipment, well trained staff, and water. The fire district can buy equipment and train staff, but relies on others for water.

On Salt Spring, the water comes from the water districts, which are a combination of improvement districts and CRD service areas. The water districts and CRD service areas are legal entities unrelated to the fire district. They also have defined purposes that come from legislation and their letters patent which, paraphrased and in brief, amount to “supplying potable water to the ratepayers”. They have no responsibility to provide what are called “fire flows”. Their only brief is to ensure that something that can be safely drunk or bathed in comes out of a ratepayer’s tap, and their responsibility is to do this at minimal cost to the people who pay the bills.

You pay your fire taxes. You pay your water taxes and bills. There’s a fire hydrant just up the road. Why does our current governance structure imperil you?

Because, if your house catches fire, no one is responsible for an adequate water supply being on tap from that hydrant. The fire district doesn’t own and has no responsibility for the hydrant or the lines that carry water to it. The water district’s responsibility is to keep drinkable water coming out of taps along the line, not providing a flow out of the hydrant if the fire department needs to use it.

These two local government functions – and most would agree they’re both important – are run by separate and independent entities, each of which is accountable to a different electorate. The fire department has no power to demand well maintained hydrants on cross-connected mains with adequate pressure from an independent body that is responsible to a different set of residents. The water district has no authority to improve already costly infrastructure to serve a purpose outside its limited and legislated mandate.

This is the situation we have today. I call it silo government. You, the person whose house is on fire, will fall through the gap between the two silos. The silos have different and in some ways opposing legal responsibilities. Putting water on your house in quantity when required is no one’s responsibility.

This would not happen if both of these functions were controlled by one body, as happens in a municipality. A municipality responsible both for drinking water and fire protection wouldn’t build a water distribution system that would support only one of the functions. A council would have to be criminal or incompetent to do that. Possible? Sure. Likely? No.

Under the current system? It’s baked in, and there is nobody to blame.

By Norbert Schlenker, Fire District Trustee, 2015-16

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