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Ignoring Ndilo snowmobile blaze was correct response, says fire chief

After a snowmobile burned north of Latham Island last week, the city's fire chief reported to city councillors Monday that the decision not to attend the fire was not an issue of capacity.

“At the time we were only staffed with five personnel and were out on two medical calls. Since there was no entrapment or no injury and the snowmobile was out on the ice, we made the decision not to respond at that time,” said Yellowknife fire Chief John Fredericks.

Avery Zingel/NNSL photo
Yellowknife fire chief John Fredericks answers councillors questions Monday about the department's decision to not respond to a snowmobile fire near Ndilo.

On March 20, Norman Betsina's snowmobile caught fire while his daughter was riding it. The machine was consumed in flames while Betsina, along with two friends, attempted to put out the fire with snow, shovels and a fire extinguisher.

“We were putting our lives at risk and we’re not as equipped as the firefighters,” Betsina told Yellowknifer.

Betsina made an emergency call but the Yellowknife Fire Department decided to not respond to the fire, as four out of five of its staff that day were responding to two medical calls.

Coun. Julian Morse asked if the fire department's decision not to respond was because the department lacked capacity.

“Do we have a capacity issue at the fire department where we're having to make the call not to fight the fires? Is that a call which you would consider normal in any municipality in this kind of situation, or was this a call that was made because of the situation in Yellowknife?” said Morse.

Incidents like the fire off the shores of Ndilo do happen elsewhere, said Fredericks.

“You're confident that we're staffed and have the human resources needs to operate effectively?” said Morse.

“Yes, I feel that we are,” said Fredericks.

“We're running a medical service and a fire service out of the same building but we could debate that we only have the staff to operate one of those,” he said. “We take in what the call actually is and what the outcome would be if we responded, or didn't respond.”

The time associated with bringing in additional personnel to respond to the station, retrieve gear, load vehicles and travel to Ndilo likely would have yielded the same result, said Fredericks.

“There was no danger to residents or additional property,” stated a March 21 news release from the city.

Morse asked the fire chief if someone could “put themselves at risk trying to put the fire out themselves.”

Deputy mayor Adrian Bell expressed similar concerns about whether the caller was told not to put the fire out themselves.

“The duty officer was in contact with the people. We determined from the conversation that we had the likelihood of us intervening and saving anything was probably nil because we would have had to do a call back. We do prioritize our calls as they come in, with the personnel that we have,” said Fredericks.

The call to not respond was “appropriate” but should be followed up with clearer stipulations on what the city's fire department will and will not respond to, said Coun. Shauna Morgan.

“The standard of cover would communicate to the public what kinds of emergency response they can expect, what we can rescue people from and what we can't rescue people from,” said Morgan.

“We have limited resources as any city does and certainly in my mind we would prioritize situations where there are injuries or potential injuries, there's entrapment, there's danger of the fire spreading to other property, houses and infrastructure in the city,” she said.

-with files from Michael Hugall.