While Kamloops firefighters respond to far more medical calls than actual fires, they complement, rather than compete with, paramedics, the local union president said Friday.
In fact, firefighters' emergency roles have been expanding over the years, said Kris Krutop, head of Local 913 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
"Firefighters do more than we ever have," he said.
Of the 6,625 calls Kamloops firefighters responded to in 2013, 103 involved house or business fires. Medical calls made up more than half of their responses, at 4,415.
They also went to 498 motor vehicle accidents, 109 rural rescues, one rope rescue and four ice rescues.
Krutop said the rope and ice incidents are situations that paramedics don't have training for.
Even at motor-vehicle accidents, firefighters are disabling airbags so they don't go off and hurt someone while people are being removed, or they're watching traffic to make sure emergency workers are safe.
Ambulance paramedics still deal with much of the medical work as well as transporting patients to hospital, he said.
Firefighters are spread out among stations throughout the city because of required response times. Paramedics are not, and they can take half an hour or longer to get to a scene depending on where they are and what they're doing, added Krutop.
Some B.C. cities like Delta are looking at giving firefighters paramedic training so they can do more medical work at a scene, said City administrator David Trawin.
It's not a move Kamloops is considering, but it raises the question of how municipalities are paying for a large number of higher-priced firefighters while the province covers the cost of paramedics.
The City wouldn't be reducing the number of firefighters in town even if B.C. Ambulance Service added more paramedics to respond to emergencies, Trawin said.
"We have the stations and have response times, WCB rules. It would be difficult to reduce the numbers significantly," he said. "They need to be available."
"I'd rather err on the caution of too many people than not enough. . . . They're trained to help people."
Trawin said the cost of firefighters is returned in lower home insurance rates. For every $1 in taxes that a resident pays for fire service, that homeowner saves $3 in insurance fees.
B.C. Ambulance Service Okangan North Supt. Shane Code oversees Kamloops and Vernon and said paramedics and firefighters work well together in those communities.
"We love the fact they're there," he said. "We have a good healthy working relationship with both. That's not always the case.
Staffing levels for paramedics have been static for the last couple of years, but there will always be a need for them to transport patients to hospital, he said.
Firefighters often arrive first or at the same time as paramedics, providing more hands on deck to help. With heavy patients or difficult terrain, that's a plus, said Code.
Locally, there's no concern about firefighters stepping on paramedics' duties or territory, he said.
"From the ambulance service perspective, everybody's trying to do a lot more with what they've got for a budget. The community wants and deserves good service," he said.
"There's plenty of work out there."
BCAS assesses the 911 calls when they come in to determine if there's value in having Kamloops Fire Rescue help out, he said.
"Kamloops has never turned us down."
And at the end of it all, it's the patient who's important.
"Would it benefit the patient if higher levels of care showed up at their side, and not just one, but two or three or four? You can't dispute that. There's no downside to having people trained as high as they possibly could be and showing up providing care," Code said.
Firefighters are paid more than most other emergency responders, but they also have a shorter life span, with the average expectancy at 66, said Krutop.
They face higher cancer rates than other emergency personnel and twice as many firefighters as police officers die every year in Canada.
"Our guys aren't going to see their pension for a lot of years," he said.
"The fact is, we're responsible for doing a lot of different things. We don't have one single mandate. Ours is very broad. We're responsible for making things better in a whole bunch of different situations."
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