It was about 8:30 a.m. on March 8 when Sharon Snell made her first call to 911, shortly after her home caught fire from a clogged chimney.
Snell was transferred to the Fire Operations Communications Centre (FOCC) in Prince George, but she said her call for service was received by a dismissive dispatcher who hung up twice and repeatedly pinpointed her Sackner Road home as located beyond the District of Vanderhoof’s fire protection zone.
“That was it. They didn’t want to talk to us anymore,” said Snell.
“We were treated very poorly.”
As the flames continued spreading higher, Sharon Snell’s son, Richard, called back a third time from inside the burning home and demanded assistance, smashing his phone on the countertop with frustration when the dispatcher informed him again that the property was located outside the district.
“I’m telling her, ‘Lady, I’m standing inside my burning house. Send help,’” he said.
Minutes later, the Vanderhoof Fire Department showed up at the two-story house, now filled with smoke. It took the department more than two hours to gain the upper hand on the blaze as they systematically tore the building apart to extinguish the hot spots, said Chief Joe Pacheco.
“We had fire in the upper floor of the building and going into the attic. It took some time to knock it down,” said Pacheco.
According to a fire report, the department acknowledged a page from the FOCC at 8:42 a.m., left the fire hall six minutes later and arrived on scene at 8:56 a.m.
As Sharon Snell watched her home burn and pondered the fate of her cats, she said it seemed like forever before the department arrived, partly because she was in a state of panic.
“If they may have got there sooner, we might not have had that much damage, we may have been able to save more, but I don’t know,” she said.
Cliff Warner, chief communications officer for the FOCC, said the dispatcher abided by standard protocol and didn’t hang up. Warner also said the Vanderhoof Fire Department was dispatched to the property when Sharon Snell’s first call was received.
“Our dispatchers responded appropriately. Actually, they went over and above: they paged the agency when they probably shouldn’t have,” he said.
Referring to a GIS map provided to the FOCC by the district, Warner said the dispatcher immediately determined the property was situated outside the defined fire protection zone. Still, he said, the Vanderhoof Fire Department was notified in case of a system error.
“Due to the nature of the callers and how they called in, our dispatcher contacted Vanderhoof and paged them out and Vanderhoof responded and that was all done within the time frame of the first call,” said Warner.
The fire was traumatic and severely damaged the home, which was built in 1945 by Sharon Snell’s father in law and wasn’t insured. Most everything under the roof needs to be gutted, and the Snell family, who could salvage only a few family pictures and items of memorabilia, have since been displaced.
Equally troubling for the Snells is their longtime understanding that the home was situated within the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako.
Part of the confusion stems from the placement of two signs at the end of the Snells’ driveway that demarcate the beginning and end of the District of Vanderhoof’s boundary for emergency fire response.
Due to the placement of the signs, the Snell’s always believed their property, or at least a portion of it, was located inside the RDBN’s fire protection zone.
However, officials says that’s not the case.
Deborah Jones-Middleton, protective services manager for the RDBN, said the signs were put in place by the Ministry of Transportation but not in accordance with the district’s fire protection zone bylaw, which outlines the boundary that the RDBN subscribes to.
“All it is, is a sign, it doesn’t delineate (the fire protection zone). The fire department, 911 and the RDBN go by the bylaw,” she said.
After arriving at the property, Pacheco believed the sign indicated the Snells were living just inside the protection area, as Richard Snell was arguing so adamantly to the FOCC dispatcher.
“When I see that the sign is just past his driveway, I’m thinking he is right,” he said.
“But the 911 operator, they know, and that’s the real tale of it all.”
Warner said the Snells’ property is part of a vast rural area in B.C., consisting of many kilometres, where people knowingly live without fire protection services.
If a house fire occurs there, the nearest 911 dispatch centre can do little other than notify RCMP and warn the appropriate forestry services if it threatens to evolve into a larger fire.