Friday, January 5, 2018

Pincher Creek Emergency Services Commission report released

Chris Davis - A public meeting was held December 13 at the Town of Pincher Creek Council Chambers for a public presentation of a Municipal Affairs Inspectors Report regarding the Pincher Creek Emergency Services Commission (PCESC), an emergency response partnership between the Town and the Municipal District of Pincher Creek No. 9. An "in-depth review and inspection" of PCESC was ordered by Alberta Minister of Municipal Affairs Shaye Anderson in November of 2016 "with regards to its management, administration and operations" after concerns were expressed by the MD of Pincher Creek. Minister Anderson also directed the inspectors to "identify any matters that may indicate the Commission is managed in an irregular, improper or improvident manner." 

"From the inspectors perspective, there's an outstanding emergency service being delivered here." -  Bill Walker, Transitional Solutions Inc.

Making the presentation were Municipal Accountability Advisor Desireé Kuor and inspectors Larry Kirkpatrick and Bill Walker of Transitional Solutions Inc. Also seated at the table were Town Mayor Don Anderberg, MD Reeve Quentin Stevick, Town Councillor Lorne Jackson, MD Councillor Brian Hammond, MD CAO Wendy Kay,  PCES Chief Dave Cox, Town CAO Laurie Wilgosh, PCES Administrator Lori Schill, and PCES Administrator Tammy Jacks.  A very small crowd attended, including former MD Reeve Bjorn Berg, a former chair of the Chair of the Pincher Creek Emergency. Services Committee. and former chair of the Pincher Creek Community Emergency Management Agency, who provided some helpful background information for this story. Any errors are the author's.

According to the report, "The overarching theme of the allegations revolves around the length of time it takes to accomplish various actions. This has morphed into a level of frustration and lack of trust by the Board." The inspectors provided 51 recommendations in the report. Some issues were ascribed to growing pains and some were highlighted as more significant because they were not congruent with Alberta's Municipal Government Act (MGA). The report also cites "some definite philosophical differences amongst those on the Board." The inspectors concluded that "overall the commission is being managed in a satisfactory manner." According to the inspectors the Minister was not issuing any directives but was concerned with the number of governance issues revealed by the inspection. The report highlights some organizational irregularities, particularly during the establishment process of the commission.


In August of 2013 the Town of Pincher Creek and the Municipal District of Pincher Creek No. 9 formed a joint committee composed of two councillors from each municipality with the object of creating a unified emergency response commission. The Pincher Creek Emergency Services Commission was created on December 19, 2014.  The commission was authorized to
"provide fire and rescue services, and emergency medical services including inter-hospital transfers." formal agreement between the municipalities was signed in August of 2015 "to jointly provide fire and ambulance services through the Pincher Creek Emergency Services Commission". MD of Pincher Creek CAO Wendy Kay was named interim Director of PCESC at that time.

On July 1, 2016 the commission established its own bank accounts.

According to the report, "On August 15, 2016, the MD of Pincher Creek wrote a letter to the Minister requesting an inspection ofthe Pincher Creek Emergency Services Commission. In their letter various allegations were made related to the MD's frustration with very little being accomplished since the formation of the Commission." That led to a November 2016 order from the Minister of Municipal Affairs for the review and inspection of PCESC. Larry Kirkpatrick and Bill Walker of Transitional Solutions Inc. conducted the inspection. According to the report, "Historical documents and materials were assembled and reviewed by the inspectors. In-person interviews and discussions were conducted with all relevant stakeholders, and the inspectors attended the April 27, 2017 Commission regular board meeting."

PCESC earned national accreditation on September 1, 2017.

The report (excerpted and interpreted):
The full report can be read at this link.

The following bullet points, taken verbatim from the report, "are those considered by the inspectors to be of particular significance":
  • The Commission governance model continue to prevail and function in the delivery of emergency services for the benefit of the public.
  • That consideration be given to changing the directors and alternates on the Board effective the 2017 organizational meetings of the MD and Town.
  • That an annual orientation and retreat be organized for Directors, Alternates and key administrative staff.
  • That administrative staff enhance their knowledge and skills as it relates to agenda and minute preparation, and further that the Board adopt a procedure related to how management is to provide information to the Board or individual Board members.
  • That the CAOs for the MD and Town be excused from attending the Commission Board meetings going forward unless specifically requested. And further that the Board enlist the services of an experienced independent neutral advisor to provide advice and assist/mentor the administrative head of the Commission for a period of time.
  • That protocols and procedures be adopted to address requests for information from individual Directors, and that Administration come to board meetings better prepared to address any potential questions brought forward by a Director.
  • That a process be adopted for developing and approving policy and procedures.
  • That the schedule of actions identified in the Membership Agreement be reviewed and completed as required. Also recommended is the transfer of land and buildings related to the fire halls in the Town of Pincher Creek, and Hamlets of Lundbreck and Beaver Mines.
  • That the Commission immediately initiates discussions with Alberta Health Services to ensure the Commission is in compliance with all AHS requirements.
According to the inspectors, Chief Dave Cox and his staff "are providing a very reliable service to the public.  It was stated that no changes to Pincher Creek Emergency Services management were recommended at this time, and would in fact "be detrimental to the delivery of service".  It was noted that Chief Cox has not had a performance review for a number of years, since before the commission was established.  The inspectors recommended an immediate performance review, to be followed by regular reviews once or twice a year.  It was recommended Chief Cox improve his and his staff's competency at reading, interpreting, and presenting monthly financial statements.

The inspectors said the basic structure of the commission was sufficient and suggested no changes to it.

The inspectors strongly recommended that the Town and MD CAOs be not present at board meetings unless absolutely necessary. From the report: "Section 19 of the Membership Agreement reads "The Municipalities shall cause the Commission to permit all of the Chief Administrative Officers of each Municipality and the Chief of Emergency Services or their designated alternates to attend all meetings of the Board of the Commission". While the best of intentions are likely to have been contemplated, the inspectors believe this undermines the ability of the Chief to provide his advice to the Board as the Administrative Head of the Commission. Because the Commission is an autonomous corporation providing a service which the members agreed to relinquish any and all control of, having the member CAOs present could be perceived as the municipalities exercising undue influence on Board decisions. With all due respect to the CAOs, the inspectors believe that unless there is a specific agenda item to which their input is required, that they or any other municipal administrative representative refrain from attending the meetings."

Among various procedural suggestions, it was recommended the board "identify the reason for going "in camera" during its meetings."

Another suggestion was that "The Chief put a priority on personal and staff preparation for Board meetings, including anticipating items which may require clarification or further information, in order to demonstrate personal engagement in Board meetings."

The inspectors recommended the establishment of a website and social media specifically related to the commission, and that agendas and minutes from board meetings be included in the website, which "should help with public confidence and accountability."

Perceptions of nepotism were also addressed, with the caution that a small community service is likely to include family members and friends. "Concerns have been expressed in regard to the Chief hiring his spouse as Deputy Chief. The record shows that the Chief was hired by the Committee in 2009. At the same time the Chief's spouse was the senior ambulance operator. By hiring the Chief, the Committee knew or ought to have known they were creating an awkward situation for the Chief. Notwithstanding, procedures should have been adopted that prevented the Chief from approving salary adjustments, performance appraisals, or any other personal matters affecting his spouse. This is an activity that should be performed by someone other than the Chief."  In an interview after the presentation Chief Cox said in addition to spouses there are families who have multiple generations serving with PCESC.  "It won't change our dynamic.  I can't see saying we can't have members, because that's how we build our organization."

Another concern for the inspectors was the Beaver Mines Fire Hall. "While the Town Fire Hall and the Lundbreck Fire Hall are listed, Beaver Mines is not. The inspectors were advised that a problem existed with the title that needed to be corrected. The inspectors were further advised that the MD had acquired some additional lands in Beaver Mines for the purposes of a new fire hall as well as some other uses. The MD and the Commission should agree upon the disposition of the existing Beaver Mines Fire Hall and the new lands designated for a new fire hall."

A side note, the Village of Cowley (which also has a fire hall and volunteer service) is an independent municipality, and is not part of the PCESC. Mutual aid agreements exist between Cowley and other area municipalities, including the Town and the MD of Pincher Creek.

The inspectors expressed concerns about conflicts between board members. From the report: "Vigorous and heated discussions are alleged to occur at some Board meetings, often being perceived by some parties as bullying. This was not observed at the April 27, 2017 meeting that the inspectors attended, where decorum and mutual respect prevailed. The Chair attempted to do his best to ensure all Directors' concerns were addressed during the meeting. Regardless of the appearance of functionality at this one meeting, the current Board unanimously believes they do not work well together. All four directors believe the political relationship between the MD and Town hasdeteriorated since the last election, which is an assertion that is supported by most of the elected
officials from the MD and Town who are not on the Board."

At the public meeting inspector Bill Walker said they asked the directors and elected officials 'Should the commission continue to be a commission delivering a service, or should it be dissolved?' According to Walker "There was overwhelming support that this commission should stay in place, from those interviewed in both municipalities."

"From the inspectors perspective, there's an outstanding emergency service being delivered here."

"I want to say clearly we had excellent cooperation from everyone we talked to.  We had nobody trying to hide stuff from us and we felt very clear that we had excellent support from everyone when we came down and did the inspection."

"When you get an inspection request, quite often it's because there is a service challenge." ie not being delivered properly to the public.  "In this case, we have not found that.  In fact, we found an outstanding service."

"That makes it easier for us to say 'This should be continued on as the service delivery mechanism."

Municipal Accountability Advisor Desireé Kuor said "The Ministry's priority throughout this process is to help provide good governance, well managed and accountable local governance, and to ensure the regional service commission provides the local leadership local stakeholders deserve."

"The minister has agreed with the inspector's determination, that overall the regional services commission has not been managed in an irregular improvident or improper manner.  Therefore, no directives are being issued.  However, the minister is concerned with the significant number of recommendations directly attributed to governance issues."  She suggested training, or hiring a consultant.  She further explained it is up to the board to accept, modify, or reject any of the recommendations, however, they are urged by municipal affairs to "Give close thought to each of them."


Mayor Don Anderberg

Town of Pincher Creek Mayor Don Anderberg is the current chair of the Pincher Creek Emergency Services Commission board.  He has been involved in the process for a long time, and served on the Emergency Services Committee for a number of years before it transitioned into a commission. "Going to the commission model was probably the right choice, we tried to go that way on two other occasions, from as early as 2003, I believe."

Anderberg said he was pleased with the report.  "I'm really glad to have outside eyes come in here.  Specially people who have experience throughout the province making statements that they think this is a service well worth keeping, and the governance model is well worth keeping."

"The vast majority of those 51 recommendations are already taken care of or being worked on, or being thought about."

"We have a great team."

I asked Anderberg if he'd seen a growth in the service requirements over the last decade.  "I think we have always had the equipment in the same locations, and we have always had a bunch of volunteers doing the work.  I think the change here that you see here out of this report is coming from the governance side of this.  We have always been an integrated service, offering fire and ambulance."

Pincher Creek Emergency Services retained their ambulances under contract to Alberta Health Services (AHS) a few years ago when AHS took over ambulance services.  "That's really driven a big change in the organization, as far as governance is concerned," said Anderberg.  "The contract has really been good for us.  On the governance side of it, we have had to step our game up, because have a contract we have to meet, we have an obligation 24-7, 365 days for paramedic services, we have training obligations that we have to meet, we have service delivery obligations we have to meet, vehicle inspections... the whole gamut of things in a major contract."

"It's evolving.  It's not all easy."

"The recommendations will be acted on, and are in the best interests of our whole community."

PSESC Chief Dave Cox

The October 2013 contract with Alberta Health Services to provide ambulance services full time changed the dynamic of Pincher Creek Emergency Services, according to PCESC Chief Dave Cox.  "We had to start staffing people, full time.  Then we became what's called a composite department, because we have paid, on call, casual and full-time members."

"There are no surprises in this," said Cox, because he had obviously been involved in the investigation process.

"We have been in the regional delivery of emergency services, as the report shows, since 2000, and the vehicle chosen to be more business-like was the commission, with a few different options. The inspection report... we went into it with the idea when it was asked for if they identified efficiencies, We will take it as a learning process."

"It (the report) kind of says a lot for what we do. That being said, with all 51 recommendations, we've got a fair bit of work to do." According to Chief Cox (and the investigators), some of the issues have already been addressed. "Some of this is done, some of it is in the process of being done."
"I take it as a positive report, and a pretty busy recommendation list of what we are going to do, and how we are going to move forward."

MD of Pincher Creek's fire suppression costs surged in 2017

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