Iqaluit rejects offer to take on airport firefighting
The Iqaluit Fire Department will not take over the emergency response service at Nunavut’s busiest airport after the GNWT cuts that service March 31.
The territorial government asked if the Town would provide the service, but council said it doesn’t want that responsibility.
Transportation officials met with councillors, Town fire chief Neville Wheaton and Iqaluit MLA Ed Picco last week to discuss fire protection at the airport.
Mayor Joe Kunuk said the town is in no position financially to provide an emergency response service, noting that repairing the two airport fire trucks will cost about $900,000.
“No money has been transferred to the Town to take over this,” said Kunuk, adding maintenance and salary costs is another unwelcome burden.
The GNWT has cut the emergency service in response to Transport Canada regulations, expected to come into force April 1, which removed the necessity to provide dedicated, full-time ERS at most Canadian airports, including Iqaluit.
“The money’s just not there in the budget and because federal regulations say you don’t need it, the political will wasn’t there to keep it,” said Picco, who fought unsuccessfully to keep the service from being cut.
Unlike most Canadian airports, Iqaluit serves as the hub for air traffic coming from the south and within the Arctic.
But what if…?
Because of the ERS service, it also acted as a designated airport for emergency landings along international polar flight routes.
After the territorial government announced the termination of the ERS service, airline companies and the public were concerned about what would happen if another disaster, such as last year’s CF-18 crash, was to occur.
In response to this public pressure, the GNWT commissioned a report by the consulting firm Avery Cooper.
That study found there was no basis to support an ERS service at the Iqaluit airport. Following the release of that report and the subsequent criticism that it reflected the GNWT position, Picco commissioned his own study.
“It basically came to the same conclusions,” he said.
It was announced the ERS would be gone at the end of the fiscal year.
Iqaluit town council was able to say no to picking up the ERS service, but it didn’t have the option of refusing to provide fire protection.
Chief Wheaton said he’s been told his 30 volunteer firefighters will now be responsible for combating aircraft fires.
“Their (GNWT) plan more or less said we will be responsible for fire protection at the airport as of April 1,” Chief Wheaton said. “We don’t have any choice.”
Wheaton said Town firefighters have been trained to fight structural fires, not aircraft emergencies. They’ve responded to fire-related calls to the airport, but it’s always been as support for the ERS crew.
Need more training
“They’re two different styles of firefighting,” Chief Wheaton said. “Right now we would go out there with the same equipment we have now and do the same thing as we would to fight a house fire.
“We’ll respond based on our level of training, which means we have no airport firefighting background. It’s a bad situation.”
He added that firefighters aren’t expected to combat aircraft fires, but when they’ve been trained to fire fires, that’s what they’ll do.
“For somebody to say you don’t have to provide aircraft fire protection, well, these are firefighters, people who’ve been told that their job is to put out fires and saves lives. That’s the moral thing we’re dealing with right now.”
Municipal and Community Affairs Minister Manitok Thompson stated during the last sitting of the legislative assembly that in 1995/96 her department began a three-year fire training plan.
“The goal of this initiative was to develop a foundation for community-based fire instruction and public education programs,” she said.
She said in light of the cancellation of the ERS program, MACA, the department of transportation and the town of Iqaluit will develop a combined airport emergency plan.
“This will not be an ERS response, but it is considered a reasonable and manageable plan to implement,” Thompson stated.
When will we be trained?
But that doesn’t alleviate Chief Wheaton’s concerns. He hasn’t even been told yet when his firefighters will be trained, although beginning April 1 they’ll be responsible for first response to airport calls.
“Iqaluit is a busy airport and the possibility of something happening is obviously real,” Wheaton said. “We are the people on the ground expected to be out there fighting the fire and we’re taking GNWT at their word that they’re going to provide us with adequate training.”
The Yellowknife airport is the only one in the Northwest Territories to operate with an ERS service.