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2022 highlighted by leadership stability: Fire Chief Cooke

St. Albert's Chief firefighter Everett Cooke says 2022 was a year highlighted by stability in department leadership, tangible investments in mental health resources for crew members, and a notable increase in structure fires.
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Firetruck on a call in St. Albert March 20, 2017.

The past year at the St. Albert fire department was a year highlighted by an effort to bring stability to the department leadership team, tangible investments in mental health resources for crew members, and a notable increase in structure fires said St. Albert's chief firefighter Everett Cooke.

Although the St. Albert Fire Services (SAFS) 2022 statistics are still being finalized, Cooke said his sense is that the number of local fires crews responded to increased slightly compared to 2021. 

Fire crews responded to 28 local structure fires in 2022, Cooke said, including the late-October fire that destroyed three homes in Kingswood.

Cooke said the structure fire statistic doesn't include incidents in other municipalities that crews responded too, such as the Nov. 6 fire at the Morinville Plaza and Suites Hotel.

In 2021 SAFS responded to just eight structure fires, although there were also eight vehicle fires. 

Cooke said crews responded to 10 outdoor fires in 2022, including the string of four brush fires in four days this past June. In 2021, crews responded to 26 outdoor fires in St. Albert, although Cooke noted the 2022 statistics could change after being finalized later this month.

Cooke took over as Fire Chief for SAFS in September 2021 following a tumultuous eight month period that saw previous Chief Bernd Gretzinger, as well as his replacement, Scott Wilde, be removed from their posts before Vern Elliott filled in as acting chief until Cooke's arrival.

In his first calendar year on the job, Cooke told The Gazette that one of 2022's biggest challenges was trying to bring stability to SAFS' leadership team, which he said has been ailing the department for some time. 

"The challenge over the last year would be creating stability among the fire leadership team," Cooke said, adding, "I'm very pleased to say that we're addressing it and that through a reorganization, we're able to ensure that we're putting staff in the right places to promote and support the needs of our frontline staff."

"That's been a challenge over the past years, and I'm very happy to say that we'll be bringing remedy to that here in 2023," Cooke said. 

Another major success for SAFS in 2022, Cooke said, was the creation of a temporary staff position to identify and recommend improvements to the mental health resources available to firefighters. 

"The position, albeit a term position for the time being, saw us second one of our members, our peer support team lead from the floor, and we moved him into a position that has a focus on reviewing and providing recommendations for improvements on the mental health and wellness program for our firefighters," he said.

Cooke said the staff member started in October, and will continue in the role until the end of March, 2023.

"There's a lot of pressure on the (emergency medical response) system, that's well known across the province of Alberta, and our members feel that first-hand," Cooke said.

In Dec. 2022, The Gazette reported that first responders represented 82 per cent of all city staff workers' compensation claims, the majority of which were complex mental health injuries.

Cooke said SAFS leadership is also working with crew members who participated in the "Guarding Minds at Work" program city administration began near the end of 2021. The program, developed by researchers from Simon Fraser University in B.C., is designed as a tool for organizations to measure employee needs as they relate to psychological health. 

As part of the program, Cooke said, crew members completed a survey before having an opportunity to give SAFS leadership input on the mental health challenges they face on the job, and their ideas on what could be improved to help. 

"We look forward to bringing the ideas that our staff are bringing forward to us, turning them into actionable items, and getting them in place," Cooke said.

Dispatch outsourcing 

SAFS may experience a significant change in 2023 if city council decides to go forward with any of the proposals to outsource St. Albert's 911 fire dispatch.

After a lengthy debate in July, council voted 4-3 to send out a request for proposals for a contractor to take over the city's fire dispatch with the goal of saving $340,000 a year.

Currently all 911 calls in St. Albert are answered by staff at the local RCMP detachment, Maloney Place, and when a fire-related call is received, it is transferred to SAFS who have in-house dispatchers. 

If council approves the outsourcing, a fire-related 911 call will still be answered first by staff at Maloney Place, who will then transfer the call to the out-of-town contractor.

Hopeful contractors had until Dec. 6 to submit a proposal. 

Edmonton, Grande Prairie, Parkland County, Red Deer, and Strathcona County showed interest in taking over the city's fire dispatch according to St. Albert's Bids and Tenders website, as each municipality registered as an official "plan taker."

Cooke said SAFS doesn't currently know when the outsourcing may take place, as council could still decide to keep the city's fire dispatch services in-house if they aren't pleased with any of the proposals.

Jack Farrell

About the Author: Jack Farrell

Jack Farrell joined the St. Albert Gazette in May, 2022.
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