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Highway is an obstacle, firefighters union insists
The upgraded section of the Island Highway does pose a problem to emergency responders and the city is making excuses to avoid taking responsibility, says one firefighter.
“I drive the route each day and my position from day one is that it’s a problem,” said Reid Wharton, president of the local firefighters union. “They’re telling us to take a $600,000 fire truck and hop a curb – wow. I’m pretty disappointed the city would tell us to do that.”
City Manager Andy Laidlaw told city council last week the re-designed section of Highway 19A is not designed for a code 3 response (lights and sirens) but does leave enough space for large fire trucks to go around pulled over traffic during an emergency. He added if need be, emergency responders could mount the high sidewalk curbs to get around other vehicles.
Laidlaw said he spoke with local emergency responders, including fire, ambulance and police, and all parties agreed the road standard, particularly the rock medians near Simms Creek, is not an impediment.
Wharton said he was never consulted by the city and feels union members, who drive the road on a regular basis, could have provided the best input.
“Certainly, no one ever talked to myself about it and as far as I know, the fire chief has never ridden in a fire truck, so how would he know?” said Wharton. “We’re the people who do it every day. I think he’s just towing the line.”
Fire Chief Dean Spry was at last week’s council meeting and sat with Laidlaw at the speaker’s table in support of the highway, but was not asked for his input from council.
Wharton also takes exception with Laidlaw’s claim that the highway is not designed for emergency vehicles to pass at high speeds, with lights flashing and sirens blaring (code 3).
“It’s pretty ironic for the city manager to say that, when the Island Highway is a major thoroughfare to Willow Point and the south end of the city,” said Wharton. “I don’t mean to knock our volunteers but we’re making more and more trips down to Willow Point because the fact is, at the Willow Point volunteer fire hall, they’re having problems manning the truck. So our response time to the Maryland Road area is 10 to 12 minutes and that’s unacceptable.”
Wharton said leaving the highway unchanged will mean a delay in response times. Council, based on Laidlaw’s recommendation, took no further action on the highway.
Wharton said as bad as Highway 19A is, Dogwood Street is worse. He said the problem is the pre-emption lights; a controller which sits above the traffic lights and is activated by an emergency vehicle’s siren. When the vehicle approaches with lights and sirens, it triggers a green light.
“They don’t work properly,” said Wharton. “Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t and with the new one-way traffic system, all the traffic bottles up at the intersection.
“It’s so bad we try to avoid Dogwood and instead go down to Alder.”
Drew Hadfield, the city’s transportation manger, said the system is working as designed and there are “no issues as far as that goes.”
He added he has been dealing with the fire chief and deputy fire chief, not the firefighters union.
“The goal (of the pre-emption lights) is to make the intersection clear so it’s safe for emergency vehicles to pass through and sometimes that takes a bit of time,” said Hadfield.
If an emergency vehicle has triggered the green light, pedestrians are given the ‘Do not walk’ sign but are allowed 10 seconds to cross, which is one of the delays emergency responders encounter.