Action taken to address Okanagan Indian Band fire service concerns

The remains of a waterfront cabin that burned down on May 2, 2018.

VERNON - The First Nations Emergency Services Society is responding to concerns about fire safety on the Okanagan Indian Band reserve near Vernon.

Executive director Brent Langlois says his agency was contacted earlier this year and was forwarded media reports about fire prevention concerns.

“We immediately engaged with the leadership of the community,” Langlois says. “We’re very actively engaged with them currently.”

In a lengthy memo sent to the Okanagan Indian Band chief and council and leaked to, members of the volunteer fire department highlighted concerns with training, proper access to equipment, and many other safety-related issues. Several members resigned over the problems.

An investigation revealed that agencies like WorkSafe B.C. and the Office of the Fire Commissioner — which would normally get involved in issues like these — have no jurisdiction in First Nations communities. 

Langlois says the Okanagan Indian Band's challenges are sadly not unique. 

“It’s heartbreaking to know that is still occurring in small communities in B.C.,” Langlois says. “It’s heartbreaking to know there are still framework discussions and jurisdictional challenges that occur with First Nations. We work very diligently in the background to... remove these regional disparities with indigenous communities.”

The First Nations’ Emergency Services Society is an organization that assists First Nations with their fire safety needs by providing fire prevention education, firefighter training, fire department administrative training and other support services.

MORE: Two homes burn to the ground on Okanagan Indian Band reserve amid questions over fire hall

The society reviewed the Okanagan Indian Band’s fire hall and is now acting in an advisory role to provide recommendations on moving forward, Langlois says. From a list of initiatives, Langlois says some items were actioned immediately, while others remain a work in progress.

“What we’ve been doing now for some weeks with the community is working through and enhancing fire prevention programs in the community itself,” he says. “We are also looking at setting up discussions with neighbouring municipalities with respect to mutual service agreements.”

Those kinds of partnerships are incredibly valuable in small, rural communities like the Okanagan Indian Band, Langlois says, adding a house or structure fire remains 10 times more likely to result in death or injury on a reserve compared to elsewhere in Canada.

The society has met multiple times with the Chief and Council of the Okanagan Indian Band, and Langlois says the outlook is positive.

“So far, things have been going proactively and productively,” Langlois says. “We’re on an upward, positive trajectory right now. We’re not going to lose any momentum.”

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