(The following article appeared in the April 2012 issue of the Canadian Firefighter & Emergency Services Quarterly as well as the April 13, 2012, issue of the Islands Independent)
What’s New at SIFPS
By Brian Lewis
Most of us live in larger towns and cities where core public emergency services such as fire protection are taken for granted. Modern, strategically-placed fire halls and ubiquitous fire hydrants are woven seamlessly into ever-expanding suburban neighbourhoods.
That’s not the case in rural areas, however, where delivery of a critical emergency service is always challenging. But it’s particularly challenging for tiny Gulf Island communities scattered throughout the southwest corner of British Columbia’s west coast.
Low year-round populations that are supplemented by growing numbers of semi-permanent “weekend” inhabitants have led to a dramatic jump in the number and value of homes in the Gulf Islands. In many cases, boomers are building permanent full-size homes they’ll retire in soon. Consequently, there’s a new focus on the risks and rising costs of homeowner fire insurance in these communities along with the increasing need for better fire protection equipment and better-trained volunteer front-line firefighters.
Those needs were particularly acute on Saturna, the 31-square kilometer southern-most of the picturesque Gulf Islands between the B.C. Mainland and Vancouver Island. How tiny Saturna tackled this challenge is extraordinary and could serve as a text-book model for any small community on how to plan and execute a demanding public project. And that textbook could be entitled: “The Little Island That Could.”
Like all small communities, Saturna must rely on volunteers for both its firefighters and the back-up administration. However, over the years Saturna’s fire protection service systematically fell further behind the island’s fire protection needs. “We used to joke that we haven’t lost a foundation yet,” recalls Bernie Ziegler, who is now president of the Saturna Island Fire Protection Society (SIFPS) and served as a director during the project’s 2007-2010 planning and construction periods. “There wasn’t even enough room in the old fire hall for firefighters to change and store their gear after a call-out and a replacement fire truck we’d purchased about a decade ago couldn’t fit into it either.” Similarly, a small fire truck stationed at the opposite end of the island at East Point had to be parked open to the elements.
Clearly, something had to be done.
And that’s when in 2005 a handful of community-minded individuals took action. “Island resident Lorne Bolton had the original vision and the group that was brought together on the SIFPS board of directors had a wide diversity of backgrounds as well as tremendous business strengths,” adds John Savage, who served as SIFPS president for most of the project’s planning and construction stages. “We certainly had many spirited discussions amongst ourselves as we planned and built the project, but the group also had a very strong commitment to make the project happen. Yes, we had the right people in the right place at the right time. Failure simply was not an option.”
Fortunately, only a few years earlier, Saturna’s community had pulled together to finance and build a state-of-the-art recreation and cultural centre. That experience and its successful track record would stand the SIFPS in good stead as it prepared to launch what in some ways would be even a more daunting and decidedly different task than the recreation centre project.
The goal? A new fire hall at the more-populated west end of Saturna and, for the first time, a new fire hall annex to serve East Point, about eight miles away.
The challenge was finding a way to do all this without breaking property owners financially.
The solution was people-power: Gather the abundant wealth of un-tapped expertise on the island, bring it together on a volunteer basis, and then proceed with the project in a realistic and business-like manner. And, above all, keep all islanders (about 350 full-time residents and roughly 1,000 part-time property owners) well-informed on every step of the project’s journey.
Looking back, Ziegler and other SIFPS directors readily acknowledge that it was a combination of that transparency plus never-ending tenacity that helped bring the project to fruition. One of the first steps was to have an appraisal done on the existing fire hall, whose land had been donated by the island’s Money family years earlier.
It was appraised at $155,000 but when the public bidding ended, the winning offer among the four bidders was significantly higher: $206,000. That price was paid by members of the same family, John and Carol Money.
“So right off the bat our society had made $51,000 more than we’d anticipated and this gave our fund-raising a very good head start,” Ziegler says. The SIFPS board also decided that by constructing a multi-purpose emergency services building, the community could utilize economies-of-scale to benefit other groups, one of them being Parks Canada. It oversees Gulf Islands National Park which includes almost half of Saturna’s land mass.
This federal agency also has fire protection and emergency services equipment on Saturna so agreement was reached, whereby Parks Canada was to occupy part of the new main building’s space for a prepaid lease of $110,000.
A similar arrangement for space was made with the Southern Gulf Islands Emergency Preparedness Commission for $30,000. This meant that the SIFPS was launching its emergency services project with approximately $346,000 cash-in-hand.
A second significant step was the board’s decision to utilize metal pre-fabricated building construction rather than conventional construction for both the main building and the East Point annex. “With steel buildings you don’t have extra design costs for architects, and construction is much cheaper,” Ziegler explains. Using this alternative meant that the final estimate for the two buildings and land was $1.25 million and that’s the figure SIFPS took to the banks.
In all, the society approached eight different financial institutions and finally worked out a long-term financing agreement with TD Bank in Victoria, which included a $250,000 fixed rate mortgage as well as a $50,000 variable rate mortgage. Those mortgages, together with proceeds from the sale of the old fire hall, revenue from the two long-term leases, $172,000 in community donations (including $80,000 previously earmarked for an ambulance building) and roughly $400,000 collected over four years from a surplus of revenues over fire department operating expenditures covered the $1.25 million project cost.
That operating surplus was due to a small increase in the mill rate within a previously-established mill rate level. “I’m still amazed that we were able to accomplish all this without the help at any level from government grants, even though we tried very hard to get them,” Ziegler says. “Regardless, I also think having a lot of business expertise on our board as well as a good community track record for public projects through the new recreation centre were significant factors in our getting these mortgages on favourable terms,” Ziegler adds. “We also think we’ll have these mortgages paid back in about six-eight years. ‘Consequently, this project won’t be a big drain on local taxpayers, who I think are getting Cadillac fire halls at Chevrolet prices,” he notes.
Savage adds that the objective was always to build functional, efficient structures. “We were building fire halls, not the Taj Mahal.” In fact, it’s been estimated that the net capital costs of the two new buildings over their life expectancy of about 40 years should cost each Saturna property taxpayer an average increase of roughly $36 per year.
Another key to the project’s success was applying the highest possible scrutiny and control of the day-by-day construction. In a nutshell, it was completed on-time and under-budget by about $20,000. “That was due primarily to our directors and their expertise,” Ziegler confides. “All of them were very successful in their previous lives in different fields such as construction, development, accounting, etc. and on top of that, they gave their time freely for this task.
“For example, the bank had looked into the business backgrounds of all our directors and that’s one reason why we got our financing relatively easily. “As well, all decisions on the project were made by committees, not individuals.
All contracts over $5,000 needed at least three bids and all bids were thoroughly checked. Most importantly, we have contracts on the public record for everything we did. “All of us felt that if you’re going to spend public money then you need to have transparency for every decision you make,” he adds. Basically, the lowest bid got the job but Ziegler admits that preference was sometimes given to a Saturna bidder if bids were close. “We felt a local bidder should have an edge if he was close in price because we’re also obligated to support our community economically,” he explains.
However, it was not uncommon for both local and off-island contract winners to donate back part of their fees as a way of helping the project along, Ziegler adds. In fact, community support from donations was broadly-based as well. Even the people who sold their East Point property to the SIFPS for the Annex donated part of the purchase price back.
And throughout the planning and construction periods property owners on Saturna were kept informed via regular newsletters. Anyone could come and physically inspect documents any time they wished. As well, there was a damage-control aspect here. “If you don’t keep telling people what you are doing then the rumors start flying,” Ziegler explains.
The end-result is the 7,000-square foot, disaster-proof, two-story main Emergency Services Building which serves the Saturna firefighting services, rescue services, Parks Canada and the emergency preparedness group and its radio room. As well, there’s ample room for fire trucks, an ambulance and other emergency vehicles.
The 1,600-square-foot East Point Annex features a spacious garage for its two fire trucks as well as an administration office, gear room, washrooms, etc. including space for the emergency preparedness group.
The official opening took place on June 18, 2011. However, such new, state-of-the-art facilities are also offering Saturna additional benefits. “Since we now have full training facilities in the main building, that’s helping us attract more volunteers,” he says. “Recruiting volunteers is always a problem on a small island like Saturna because there are very few young people here. “Having new facilities like this is also a way of saying thank you to the people who are already doing these volunteer jobs.”
Furthermore, the new Emergency Services Buildings may save all Saturna homeowners money on their fire insurance down the road. Fire insurance costs in Canada are based on a rating system administered by the Fire Underwriters Society (FUS) on a scale of 1-to-10. The highest possible risk is rated at 10 — and Saturna’s rating is a nine. “We want to get that FUS rating reduced,” Ziegler says.
And now that both the new emergency services buildings are operational, representatives from other Gulf Island communities are dropping by to see for themselves how this little island thought it could do this big project — and then went out and did it.