Penticton fire chief talks ups and downs of 2022, plans to keep on making emergency response better – Penticton News
Penticton Fire Chief Larry Watkinson was on the ground in Nova Scotia this year to respond to the hurricane and was gathering emergency response to bring them back to Penticton.
The Penticton Fire Chief says 2022 has certainly presented challenges for the department, but growth within the organization makes him optimistic about the past year and the years to come in serving the community.
Larry Watkinson, fire chief since 2016, said 2021 ended with around 3,300 calls to the department and 2022 ended with around 4,000, a large increase in calls.
He attributes some of this to the “glaring impact” of increasing medical emergencies like drug overdoses, but the number of calls has generally gone up.
“Everything from motor vehicle accidents to engineering rescues and water emergencies,” Watkinson said.
Demand usually increases in the summer when events take place and visitors arrive, but this year it has been consistent.
“Typical [demand will]. taper into winter in the fall, but we didn’t really see that. It was basically somewhat parallel from September to November. And we usually rejuvenate quite a bit, but that’s not the case this year,” said Watkinson.
“Before COVID we actually had a reduction in calls to 911, which was kind of nice to see. I always say that when the trucks are in the barn, the town of Penticton is best protected. If the fire trucks are in the fire hall, that’s where we want them,” Watkinson said.
“Trying to maintain that responsiveness is my constant challenge and probably will be for the rest of my career.”
Good news on that front came at the last city council meeting in 2022, when the city council voted to fund four more firefighters in the coming year.
This follows a new recruit class of five this year, the largest Watkinson has seen since coming to town, and 20 new paid on-call firefighters, a process that hasn’t been done in a number of years because of COVID. 19 concerns.
“So it’s really nice to see some new faces and have young blood in the organization,” Watkinson said.
This year also saw the fifth annual Wildfire Interface Training Symposium, inviting over 400 participants from across the province to learn the latest tactics in fighting wildfires. Watkinson estimates that the Penticton City Fire Department has helped train more than 4,000 firefighters over the five years.
The program had such an impact that the province asked if they could host the symposium regionally in the province, so BC Wildfire Service, Emergency Management BC and the Fire Chiefs’ Association would host it in North Vancouver next year.
“It’s exciting, we’ve really made a difference. I’m proud of that,” said Watkinson.
He is also very proud of the work he and his department have done in fire safety education and activities, presenting at several different conferences and inspecting nearly 3,000 public buildings this year alone.
“We are proud to say that we are leaders in many areas of our industry, particularly in the areas of fire management and wildland fire preparedness and fire smart. As such, we have been asked to present at these various conferences quite frequently. Those are the highlights of bringing a little bit of our expertise to our organization,” said Watkinson.
The Fire Smart program focused heavily on individual home assessments and completed 50 this year, resulting in over 40,000 pounds of fuel being removed from local properties to make them more suitable in the face of wildfires.
The local firefighters union has also been busy this year doing good work in the community, raising over $27,000 which they have distributed to various community groups and organizations such as Toys for Tots, the OSNS Child and Youth Development Center and many more .
Going forward, there will be many of the same priorities for Watkinson, including vigilance and preparedness for the ever-changing demands of firefighters’ time.
“With climate change, we see more fresh damage,” he said as an example. “We’ve had this flash flood this year, we’ve had the Keremeos Creek wildfire, summer heat domes… we’ve really focused our operations on being better prepared for those types of situations. And I think it shows in the way we’ve been able to respond to those emergencies.”
Watkinson will continue to seek new strategies for emergency response, both attending conferences and going elsewhere to help and learn — this year, for example, he was deployed to Nova Scotia to help with the hurricane.
“I’ve come out with a lot of new ideas about how we can do things differently at Penticton, especially as it involves quick damage assessments,” said Watkinson.
“That’s how I’ve always grown as a fire chief… It’s trying to be open to other ways of doing things. That’s really what I get the most out of these kinds of assignments.”