With 34 false fire alarms in January alone, Yellowknife’s fire chief John Fredericks says the issue is not going away anytime soon and it’s costing the department both money and resources.
“It’s getting tougher and it’s more on the weekends. We look for patterns, so we try to not schedule other things when we know that Friday, Saturday nights are alarm nights,” he says.
Fredericks says 2017 was a pretty good year, only 143 false alarm calls came to the department. Last year, 258 calls came in. Of those, 78 per cent were deemed malicious, meaning someone pulled an alarm, damaged something which set the alarm off, opened a fire door, or something similar. The first month of 2019 wasn’t any better: 34 false alarm calls came to the fire division, of which 60 per cent were malicious.
And while the opening of the sobering centre and the start of an outreach van service have reduced the number of ambulance calls, Fredericks says the issue of false alarms is replacing this as a costly and time-consuming one for the department.
When a fire alarm call comes in, four to six members are sent together with a fire truck and an ambulance. With five to eight members at the fire hall on any given day, this means most of the time all staff members are going to the call.
“We don’t get it as a false alarm, we get it as an alarm in a building. So we have to respond as it is a working fire,” Fredericks says. This involves around an hour on scene, and half an hour for a member to write a report after the incident. Fredericks estimates it costs around $1,400 to send the fire truck and ambulance.
It can also slow response times for other emergencies, which Fredericks says happens during around five per cent of calls. “We’d be fully dressed, doing our job as a firefighter on a building then we’d get a medical call. So those two attendants have to take off their gear, jump in the ambulance and go to the call. So it slows down our response.”
Fire department members don’t only respond to fires, they also have training, fire inspections, pre-planning for how to respond to fires at certain buildings. All of this gets shelved when calls come in.
The department is now working with property owners on prevention. Deputy fire chief Gerda Groothuizen says some ideas include electronic cover plates over pull stations, cameras and having RCMP investigate and lay charges.
“We have our fire prevention person, talking to property owners to try to give them ideas of how we can cut down these because right now, they’re not manageable. When you have 258 (in 2018), we’ve had 34 in the month of January so it’s not slowing down,” Fredericks says.