Regional district director Tom Chapman is issuing a public apology over remarks he made about Naramata volunteer firefighters’ reasons for taking a leave of absence.
Chapman said he would like to offer some clarity on the issue of alcohol in the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen.
“I made a statement regarding some members having taken a temporary leave based on an outright ban on alcohol within the Naramata hall. I would like to provide further clarification. The aforementioned members did not leave based upon an alcohol ban,” said Chapman. “The members took a leave in order to reassess their future within Naramata Fire Department. A ban on alcohol was mentioned as an issue of concern because they did not want to see Naramata singled out as the only department in the RDOS with an outright ban but rather that policies developed on alcohol be region-wide.”
Earlier this month, the RDOS board had a discussion on whether or not to adopt a policy that would prohibit seven of the rural fire departments from storing and consuming alcohol on the property. At the time Chapman told media that five volunteer firefighters from the Naramata hall took temporary leave to show their distaste for a policy implemented over a month ago by newly hired fire chief in Naramata, Wil McCutcheon, that forbids alcohol consumption at their hall.
After his comments came out, he retracted stating the five Naramata firefighters had points of contention with other issues in the fire hall and the last straw was being singled out with an alcohol ban while it was still in discussion at the board level for all rural fire halls. Chapman said the firefighters felt being singled out made them and the fire department look bad when they have done nothing wrong.
“The group have been absolutely clear that they would abide by any policy formulated by the RDOS in regards to alcohol in RDOS fire departments without protest,” said Chapman in his apology. “The error is mine and mine alone. I did not provide the level of detail required in this very sensitive issue at the time of my discussions with the media. My apologies to those whom I have offended.”
Chapman said the five volunteer firefighters, who collectively have over 50 years of experience, are now taking a break to reassess their futures with the Naramata fire department. He has since spoken with the volunteers and apologized personally.
“With how much personal property they have saved over the years, they felt like pariahs. I think it is incumbent upon the new chief to communicate and I think that is what is lacking. It was something made very clear when he was hired that he had to bridge the divide,” said Chapman. “I think the main thing here is no one has extended an olive branch to the five firefighters.”
On Sept. 1 the RDOS board voted against adopting a policy prohibiting alcohol storage and consumption on RDOS property except under special permit.
Instead, the board is asking the fire departments to bring forward an alcohol consumption policy themselves for the board to consider that shows safety as a primary concern and saves the regional district from liability. RDOS legal counsel suggested enhanced scrutiny of first responders and any suggestion of negligence at an incident would only be complicated if there was a suggestion of alcohol use by members.
Still, Keremeos director Walter Despot told the board that he was not in favour of the policy.
“I am aware of the litigation issues,” said Despot. “I’m upset that we’re saying that firefighters don’t have the ability to make decisions with regard to alcohol on premises.”
There are seven departments this policy would affect in the regional district: Naramata, Kaleden, Okanagan Falls, Anarchist, Willowbrook, Keremeos and Tulameen.
About 25 years ago the no-alcohol policy began trending with career fire departments but, according to RDOS, volunteer departments have been slow to embrace that.