BANFF – Banff’s elected officials have grave concerns about the safety of travellers through Kootenay National Park with Parks Canada’s decision to end its contract with Banff Fire Department for road rescue and other emergency responses at the end of next year.
Parks Canada earlier this year told the Town of Banff that its 10-year contract would be terminated one year early at the end of 2022; however, the federal agency made an 11th hour decision on Friday (Nov. 25) to honour the original agreement until Dec. 31, 2023 while a new plan is figured out.
Town officials say the municipality has an option to join Emergency Management British Columbia (EMBC) once the contract with Parks Canada ends, but under that model, the department can only respond to road rescues and only get paid if a person needs to be extricated from a vehicle.
Silvio Adamo, Banff’s fire chief and director of protective services, said Parks Canada told the municipality they were “modernizing and not legally responsible for road rescue”.
“It’s certainly a degradation in service,” he said.
The Banff fire department has been responding to emergencies in Kootenay National Park since the department was run by Parks Canada before the Banff townsite was incorporated as an Alberta municipality in 1990.
After incorporation, the department continued to provide service, but eventually signed a 10-year agreement with the federal agency in 2014 to formalize emergency response for road rescue, fires and medical emergencies. The contract also included fees for service and liability coverage.
The Banff Fire Department responds approximately halfway to Radium Hot Springs on Highway 93 South, where it meets with the jurisdiction of Invermere Fire Department between Vermillion Crossing and Kootenay Crossing.
Adamo said approximately one per cent of the fire department’s annual call volume is to Kootenay National Park, which accounts for between six and 10 responses a year.
He said Banff’s responses into the park have increased to three to four per cent of total calls since Highway 93 South began to be used as a detour route when the Trans-Canada Highway is closed near Golden for highway twinning construction in Kicking Horse Canyon.
“Obviously, there’s a lot more traffic, which equates to a lot more accidents,” he said.
The EMBC road rescue program, which is what Invermere is part of to respond into Kootenay National Park, pays a municipality approximately $360 per hour regardless of the number of fire trucks and firefighters, and only if a person needs to be extricated from a vehicle.
“The Coles Notes is EMBC will not compensate a municipality or any agency responding for medical emergencies, hazmat, fires,” said Adamo.
“The other thing that dictates their compensation is if someone is entrapped or needs extrication out of a vehicle or structure, only then they will compensate.”
Adamo said EMBC’s rate of $360 per hour also does not come close to covering the Town of Banff’s costs to respond.
“When we set the pagers off for membership during the day, it costs us somewhere between $1,000 and $1,200 to do that, and after hours of 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., it’s double that,” he said.
“As far as cost recovery, it doesn’t even come close. There’s a large gap between what they will compensate for and what we normally responded to in emergencies.”
Coun. Chip Olver said she is concerned for travellers on Highway 93 South when the contract with Parks Canada ends.
“If their vehicle is squashed enough and they need to be extricated, then they’ll get a certain level of response, but for other situations they won’t,” she said. “That’s a busy highway and it’s unfortunate that this is changing.”
Olver also voiced concern over the level of service degrading if EMS ambulances were only to respond to medical emergencies without support from the fire department.
“That puts the ambulance crew at greater risk? And less personnel on the ground to respond because firefighters do have certain level of training?,” she said.
Adamo agreed, noting Banff has a competent and highly trained first responder group.
“Under the current contract, if there is a medical emergency now and it’s serious enough we will respond, or EMS will request our assistance, we would respond. Under an EMBC agreement we would not respond,” he said.
“We believe we are very valuable in assisting EMS, and a lot of times EMS personnel like the big red truck blocking the scene to ensure their safety and patient safety while they’re treating a patient or patients.”
Banff town council was pleased with Parks Canada’s last minute decision to honour the original contract, but in the meantime asked administration for an update by the middle of next year on the road rescue plan with EMBC for 2024 and beyond.
“There’s a real sense of a moral obligation to try and do our best to be able to respond to incidences on that section of highway. Those could be visitors to Banff, those could be residents of Banff,” said Mayor Corrie DiManno.
“I am glad that we don’t have to lose sleep over it yet, and we can work with EMBC and and town of Invermere to figure out what our plan going forward in 2024 would be.”
The Town of Banff recently met with the District of Invermere and their fire chief and CAO.
Adamo said Invermere shares concerns on length of time needed for their resources to respond and amount of time municipal resources are out of their municipality, which could potentially effect response times to other in-town incidents.
“They’re obviously concerned about having to pick up the slack if we exit the program with Kootenay park and did not enter into the EMBC program to do response,” said Adamo.
Banff Fire Department continues to respond to emergencies on Highway 93 South as far as the Alberta-British Columbia border within Banff National Park because the contract is with Improvement District No. 9 and not Parks Canada.
Parks Canada also cancelled its contract with Field Fire-Rescue. Now, Golden and Lake Louise fire departments respond to Yoho National Park under the EMBC model.
The Outlook contacted Parks Canada for comment late last week. By Tuesday morning, the federal agency had still not granted an interview or provided a statement on the matter.