May 21st, 2024

Fire chief Marc Rathwell looks back on past year before heading to retirement

By Lethbridge Herald on January 3, 2022.

Fire investigator Troy Hicks, at left, oversees a group of recruits as they deal with a fire as part of a training session this past year at the Fire Station No. 4 Training Centre. Herald file photo by Al Beeber

Trevor Busch – Lethbridge Herald

With sights firmly set on his February 2022 departure, Fire Chief Marc Rathwell highlighted many of the previous year’s accomplishments for the Lethbridge Fire Department in a year-end review in late December.

“When I look at all the accomplishments we’ve done, there’s been some really tough things that have happened through this past year, when you think of COVID and the opioid issues that we’ve been dealing with in our community, and overall throughout the province because we’re involved at the provincial level — it’s been a really challenging year, and it was neat to actually take this moment and reflect on all of the really positive things that we did. Some of the pieces may not on the surface look positive, but they’re actually really good things for our community.”

Rathwell said the department has grappled with issues surrounding the provincial take-over of EMS dispatch, which has been problematic for the city and raised serious concerns about the efficacy of the provincial model.

“When I started looking back in January, one of the big ones that stepped up to me there was our EMS dispatch. That’s when our dispatch centre for EMS here was removed and moved off to Calgary to be centralized with the AHS dispatch centre. That has caused us some real big challenges, but the pieces that have come out of it working with the province, trying to find collaborative answers to some of the issues and concerns that have popped up since that transition has happened. And of course trying to work out through some of the issues in our own community and how that impacted an integrated fire-EMS service that we run. That was kind of a big challenge for us, working with the Minister of Health through that and a lot of other folks through the province and other communities, the chiefs from Red Deer, Fort McMurray, and the director of communications from Calgary.”

The department still managed to find some time to make some new hires, swelling the ranks with needed recruits.

“In April, we brought on a new recruit class. So in the middle of COVID, our world doesn’t end,” said Rathwell. “We have people that are retiring, moving on and we still need to hire staff because emergency services, people want us to show up. You have to have the staff to do that. So we did go through a new recruit class this past year and successfully brought those folks through with no issues.”

New infrastructure for the department also swung open the doors to public service in 2021. 

“That was all part of the opening in June of the new west side fire hall, number five. That’s another big feather for all of us here in the fire service. We were able to actually open a fire station during the midst of COVID and all the other challenges that we were experiencing,” said Rathwell.

While the take-over of EMS dispatch has had its issues in Lethbridge over the past year, Rathwell also pointed out the department took over administration of the dispatch centre and brought these employees under the aegis of the service.

“As we worked our way through the summer, typically summers administratively we tend to slow down a little bit, but this year was certainly not that. We started working with the rest of the community and with the City as we worked through lots of the concerns around reduction in our budgets, reorganization processes, and how that impacted us. And as we saw later on in the year, the PSCC — the Public Service Communications Centre, or our 9-1-1 dispatch centre — actually became part of the fire service. Previously it had been a stand-alone business unit in the city, and now that is part of the fire service here, so that’s something I’m managing now with my deputies and all the other folks. That was another learning curve for us as we picked all those pieces up and ran with that.”

Replacement of an aging ladder truck with a more versatile tower truck is already paying dividends for the department, says Rathwell.

“New trucks and equipment, that’s just sort of part of the life-cycling piece that we do here at the fire service. So we were able to replace one of our older ladder trucks with a new tower truck. And we’re really happy with that, because that truck is actually much more functional for our city, it’s better for the services that are working on it, as well as being safer and more efficient for our crews to manage and operate. So we’re really excited about that, and you might see that running around the city.”

The City’s 16 Avenue fire hall is nearing the end of its lifecycle and usefulness as a facility, and Rathwell says decisions will have to be made regarding the future of fire service response on the southside.

“Toward the end of the summer we were also presenting to council our view on the new southside stations. So we’re looking at relocating our southside number three location off 16th Avenue to a new location. That station has been there for over 60 years, probably looking at 70 years of lifecycle at that station. We’re struggling to actually make it a functional station based on the demand and need in that part of the city. And then we have to look at the actual future need on the southside of the community as well as things like the airport. So we want to make sure that we’re prepared from a fire perspective to support all those aspects. Unfortunately part of that is having a much bigger station so we can manage all those pieces.”

The ongoing opioid crisis has taken a toll not only on the population within the city that struggles with addiction, but on the service providers like fire and EMS who are there to help, argues Rathwell.

“One of the biggest ones for us is the opioid issue that’s going on in our community. That has never left. We’ve been dealing with this for over three years. When I talk to new staff that’s just normal business for them, but when you look retrospectively into this, you see how that has impacted our responses to a very fine level. So the number of calls we’re going to, the number of intense issues that we’re going through repeatedly in a day, is a real big draw on our staff.”

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