The 2010 dilemma: Fire services for Vancouver Olympics among issues yet to be solved

Paul Dixon
October 31, 2008
Written by Paul Dixon

During the Olympics, it is expected that upwards of 16,000 cars and 800 buses  a day will be on the Sea to Sky Highway at the height of the winter driving season. A rockslide in July closed the highway for five days.
 Photo by the canadian press
With the closing of the Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing, it is little more than a year until Vancouver and Whistler take centre stage. As the Olympic torch was extinguished in Beijing, VANOC was hosting a celebration in Vancouver, marking the final countdown to 2010 and introducing new emblems and colours. The public face of the 2010 Olympics is about shiny new buildings, public celebrations and fluffy mascots but under the surface is the hard reality of planning for the security and safety of the Games, the participants and the local communities.

VANOC’s website ( states that VANOC “is responsible for the planning, organizing, financing and staging of the XXI Olympic Winter Games and the X Paralympic Winter Games in 2010”, while government partners provide “funding, infrastructure, essential service support and management services”, while emphasizing the “lasting economic, sport, cultural and social legacies for citizens and communities throughout British Columbia and Canada.”

That said, there is much to be resolved among VANOC, the federal and provincial governments and municipalities involved in 2010, regarding expanded municipal services, especially firefighting resources, to meet the anticipated surge in demand for 2010.

Conventional wisdom is that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for municipalities with Olympic venues to provide an appropriate level of service to these sites without additional equipment and staffing or reducing service to the rest of the community. BC Ambulance Service communications director Steve Roberts says BCAS will staff Olylmpic venues with between 125 and 150 paid paramedics a day. Further, BCAS will add 60 new ambulances to its fleet in time for the Olympics; they will later be dispersed across the province as part of the annual fleet renewal. Staffing for the Olympics will be drawn from the pool of more than 2,100 part-time paramedics BCAS employs across the province. BCAS can do this because the province pays the bills and it has a large pool of employees from which to draw. Municipally funded fire services do not have the ability to increase equipment or staffing levels.

Many people don’t want to talk openly about this issue and declined to be interviewed. John Furlong, VANOC CEO, emphasizes that VANOC’s role is to plan, organize, finance and stage the Games; everything else falls to one or all three levels of government. At the provincial level, only senior staff are allowed to comment; everything else must be cleared through Victoria before it can be attributed. Vaughn Palmer, senior political columnist with the Vancouver Sun, said recently that more and more, Premier Gordon Campbell is the only public voice of the government, with even cabinet ministers deferring to him.

Then there are the communities that have little or no direct Olympic involvement but find themselves in the middle of things, literally. The Village of Lions Bay, with a population of 1,350, sits astride the Sea to Sky Highway, the road to Whistler. In 2006, the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper rated this 100-kilometre stretch of highway as one of the five most scenic drives in the world. Winding its way along the steep cliffs above Howe Sound, the road also enjoys a reputation as one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in Canada. In August, the road and adjoining CN rail lines were closed for five days by a massive rock slide at Porteau Bluffs. During the Olympics, it is expected that upwards of 16,000 cars and 800 buses a day will be on the road at the height of the winter driving season.

Don Reid, chief administrative officer of the village, when asked what benefits it would accrue from the Olympics, replied “a new highway with more cars moving at a higher rate of speed”. The Lions Bay volunteer fire department responds to scores of accidents each year along the 30 kilometres for which it is responsible. Long traffic backups and lengthy delays are the norm. Even with the hundreds of millions of dollars the province is spending to upgrade the road, Reid feels that accidents are inevitable during the Olympics. “We need a new fire truck and we have problems with coverage during the day, as so many of our firefighters work outside the community. We’ll do what we can, because that’s all you can do.”

Originally, security costs for 2010 were set at $175 million but Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day has publicly said the number is “grossly out of whack”. A Vancouver Sun story about the issue in September reported that police planners are having problems getting a new budget approved by Ottawa, which is “reportedly many times higher than the original estimate”. With a federal election underway, the Sun said local Mounties are referring all questions on security budgets to Ottawa and nobody in Ottawa is returning phone calls, laying low until after the October federal election. It is expected that the new budget details will be made available  after the election. Provincially, the governing Liberals have announced that there will not be a fall sitting of the provincial legislature, thwarting any hope the opposition NDP may have had of finding out how much money the province is committing to security for the Games. This is a municipal election year in B.C., with voters going to the local polls in November. Setting the mood for the municipal elections, Sam Sullivan, the current mayor of Vancouver, was defeated at his own party’s nomination meeting.

As planning for 2010 enters the final phase, people from all levels of government will be involved in creating the solutions. The solutions will cost money; the only available sources of that money are the two senior levels of government.

Paul Dixon is a writer living in Vancouver.
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