If you’re one of the 11 female firefighters working alongside more than 275 male co-workers at the Burnaby Fire Department, the Duthie Avenue fire hall wasn’t built for you.
There’s a single dorm, with beds separated by a curtain, and a single washroom, with two sinks, a toilet stall and a shower behind a pony wall.
The good news is you won’t be assigned there because of the inadequate facilities; the bad news is you won’t be assigned there because you’re a woman.
If the city hopes to attract more women and transgender firefighters to the ranks of the Burnaby fire department, it’s going to have to do something about the living quarters and washroom facilities at most of its stations, according to a recent report.
Fire department leadership, management and external partners are “aware and concerned with the insufficient amount of diversity” in the fire department, according to the Burnaby Fire Department 2019 Needs Assessment – a report completed this spring by an outside consultant firm.
In April, Coun. Colleen Jordan wrote a letter to mayor and council, noting only two of the department’s 16 new hires in January were women.
“Why did the city not add more women and racialized workers at this time, given that we were already aware of the fire department’s lack of diversity and the report recommendations?” Jordan wrote.
But one of the factors working against diversity is local fire halls themselves.
“In most stations, the living quarters and washrooms are not adequately suited to support the needs of a diverse workforce,” states the report.
The consultants singled out Station 4, the Duthie Avenue fire hall, as a particular challenge.
“The expectations to provide a safe, inclusive and dynamic environment cannot be met with the current building’s design, equipment, and age,” states the report.
Retired assistant fire Chief Erik Vogel spent a lot of time at Fire Station 4.
“It was pretty disgusting,” he said of the aged facility, which was built in 1956.
Vogel said female firefighters were not stationed at the hall during his time with the department (he retired in 2018) because of the inadequate facilities.
He remembers one female firefighter lodging a complaint because the department would not assign her to the station but would send her there from other halls for coverage.
Vogel said replacing the hall is a “no brainer.”
“Who would argue against that?” he asked. “If you want women and you have a fire hall that doesn’t support women, why wouldn’t you knock it down tomorrow?”
He also questioned why female firefighters aren’t already being accommodated in temporary facilities, like a trailer.
“I lived in those for years when they were building 3 hall and 2 hall, so why wouldn’t they do that right now?” he said.
‘It isn’t lost on us’
Women are still not “typically” assigned to the Duthie fire hall, according to fire Chief Chris Bowcock, who was named to the department’s top job last month.
But Bowcock said the department doesn’t get a lot of complaints from women about not being assigned to Fire Station 4 because not a lot of firefighters want to work there, period.
“But it isn’t lost on us, the opportunity to work there, and that’s an important distinction,” he told the NOW.
Bowcock said the department hasn’t considered a trailer to accommodate women because the city isn’t in favour of temporary buildings, and such a solution wouldn’t be conducive to a team environment.
Instead, Bowcock said the department has pushed for renovations at Fire Station 4 and Fire Station 1 on Sperling Avenue that will see larger washrooms replaced with individual “tunnels,” each equipped with a sink, toilet and shower.
The department has asked for two such facilities at Station 4 and six or seven at Station 1, according to Bowcock.
The department is also installing doors in dorms for privacy at stations 1, 4 and 6, he said.
In the city’s 2020 capital plan, $520,000 has been set aside for restroom and dorm suitability upgrades at fire halls.
It’s part of a general move away from “gang” facilities, like open showers and dorms, to individual facilities.
“It comes to different cultures, and we don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable,” Bowcock said. “That also gives the ability in the future, when you get to people who have less defined gender roles or gender identification, so all those things are important.”
As long as rooms aren’t segregated into different wings, a team environment can still be maintained, he said.
Long time coming
It remains to be seen, however, whether any significant renovations will go ahead at the Duthie fire hall because the station is set to be replaced.
The fire department needs assessment recommends replacing it at its current location, and the city’s 2020-2024 financial plan includes $20.3 million over the next three years for the project.
Bowcock is optimistic.
But Fire Station 4 has been here before.
In 2002, the last time the city hired consultants to take a comprehensive look at the needs of its fire service, they found the Duthie fire hall was already only “marginally adequate for current operations” and in need of “significant upgrading and additional space in the future.”
The city’s five-year financial plans have included funding for the design and construction of a new Fire Station 4 every year since 2008.
The only exception was the 2019-2023 plan, when $400,000 was included in 2019 for a feasibility study for a station in northeast Burnaby.
In 2008, city officials had earmarked $5.1 million for the replacement project. That sum has now quadrupled.