Burgeo’s fire chief, Glen Hann, was disappointed to discover there are hundreds of areas across the province not serviced by fire departments, including stretches of many highways, and is lobbying to change the situation.
RCMP and ambulance services cover all areas of the province, but fire departments are governed by their municipalities and can only travel as far as their town council dictates. Fire protection crews are mandated to stay within a reasonable distance from their home base, so they can respond to any emergencies there. Hann says the arrangement is very dangerous for travellers going through what he refers to as dead zones.
He recalled an accident that happened last December. A woman drove off the Burgeo highway and into a ditch full of water. She had spinal injuries and was trapped in her car with water rising to her knees. She was 18 kilometres from the Trans-Canada Highway but 130 kilometers from Burgeo. The Burgeo fire department is only allowed to cover up to what locals refer to as the 90-degree turn, which is 98 kilometres from the town.
“That lady spent two hours trapped in her car with our department standing by, while our town manager discussed the matter with the RCMP as well as the Stephenville and Stephenville Crossing fire departments.”
The Stephenville crew travelled out of its jurisdiction to come to her aide. Firefighters extricated her from her crumpled car using the Jaws of Life. “Had that car been bottom up in the water, she would have drowned,” Hann said.
Inclement weather poses huge hazards for drivers in no-fire-service areas. Hann remembers three years ago when a family of three ran into trouble.
“(They) were stuck in their vehicle on the Burgeo road for 30 hours in one of the worst storms we’ve ever had.”
Compounding the problem was a lack of cell phone service for 50 kilometres of the Burgeo road.
“What kind of a feeling does that give you, hoping someone will come to your rescue?” asked Hann.
Kerry Power, executive director or NL 911, confirmed that out of 1,330 emergency service zones in their system, there are 390 zones across the province that aren’t covered by fire services.
“The vast majority of these are wilderness areas, ponds, lakes or unpopulated areas, but there are some that have dwellings,” she said.
Examples of no-fire-service zones include highways, such as a large portion of the Bay d’Espoir Highway; cabin areas, such as George’s Lake or Thorburn Lake; and unincorporated areas, such as Goobies Siding and local service districts.
Power explained: “We have no authority or capability to decide what fire departments will respond to (in) any area. Our information is based completely on what the communities provide us for their fire response area. For any 911 call received requesting fire response to these no-fire-service areas, 911 call takers will transfer these callers to the RCMP. If the emergency being reported requires more than one emergency service provider to respond, 911 call takers will also notify the other agencies needed (i.e., ambulance service).”
Chief Hann said he has lobbied the government to address the situation and vows to continue to address it publicly.
“Some of our members would get into their vehicles and try to help, that’s the way the ordinary Newfoundlanders are,” he said
But Hann admitted there likely would not be much his firefighters can do to prevent a house or cabin from burning down without equipment, or rescue car accident victims without the Jaws of Life.