The city council is taking advantage of this year’s election to have Prince Rupert residence decide whether or not they want the city to replace the aging fire hall or RCMP headquarters. Both buildings are several decades old and the organizations who have to use them say that they are no longer adequate for the realities of firefighting or policing in the 21st century.
At the last meeting of city council, the members gave the third reading to three different options that could potentially be used in a referendum during the municipal election. The options are to replace the police station with a new building, to replace the fire hall with a new building, or to replace both buildings with a large single building which the two organizations can share.
All of these projects are expensive and to build them will require the city to borrow money which, according to the community charter, the city can only do if it is approved by residents in a referendum.
On top of that, to pay off the loans will require an increases in property taxes. By the city’s own estimation, a new fire hall is expected to cost $9.3-million and require a tax increase of 5.41 percent; a new police station by itself will cost $12.3-million and need a tax increase of 7.15 per cent; and to replace both with one building will cost $ 21.7-million and need a tax increase of 12.56 per cent.
The actual referendum questions for these options need to be submitted to Victoria for approval before the can be put on the ballot, but if they are on it and are all rejected council will be forced to make improvements to the current buildings without taking out a loan.
But there is a wrinkle in this set-up too. The city has an agreement with the Provincial government that obligates it to provide facilities to the RCMP that meets its operational needs. For the past three years, the RCMP has sent an annual letter to the province saying that the city has failed to meet its obligations and that they want a new building. According to regulations that’s enough time for the RCMP to wait before the province simply builds a new building and send the bill to the city anyway, and neither the city or the local police will have a say on the design.
The Prince Rupert Northern View decided to see for ourselves how bad these two building actually are and to understand why the firefighters and the police say they need new buildings so badly.
THE FIRE HALL
The fire hall is easily in the worst condition out of the two. It was built well over half a century ago and it shows. It’s a building made for a different age and a different kind of equipment than what is being used now.
The garage is easily the biggest frustration for the people who work at the fire hall. Most modern fire halls have doors on either side, eliminating the need to back into the garage, but drivers here have to just that from one of Rupert’s most congested streets.
Known as the “the barn” by the firefighters, the garage is simply not big enough by any measure. It’s not wide enough to park the fire engines the proper distance from each other to let the firefighters get into them easily or to open the side compartments to check the equipment. It’s not long enough, so the vehicles are parked end-to-end and they have only a matter of inches before the rear of the fire engines hits the back wall. The ceiling isn’t high enough, so that the pipes had to be rearranged so they wouldn’t collide with the top of the fire engine they got last year.
Saddest of all, the new fire engine barely fits through the door. The doors were made for fire engines from the 1950’s, and since fire engines have been getting bigger pretty consistently over the past half a century, it has reached the point where the top of the vehicle has maybe a inch-and-a-half clearance under the top of the door. The fire fighters believe if they were to hit the brakes while driving it out, it would cause the fire engine to hit the top of the door,
The rest of the building isn’t fairing much better. The building has no storage space, the 911 dispatch is working out of a glorified closet, there isn’t much living space for the firefighters who are on call, their work-out room and meeting room are one and the same, and the equipment room used by around 15 people is extremely cramped. They can’t even slide down the fire poll because of its awkward placement right in front of a door.
Structurally, the place is also looking pretty grim. Despite renovations to the roof, there are still cracks on the ceiling that they have been watching get longer and longer and time goes on. The floor is creaky and the white walls have been stained grey from the exhaust fumes from the garage that gets into the building due to bad air circulation.
Prince Rupert’s fire chief, Dave McKenzie, says that he would be just as happy sharing a building with the RCMP as he would be if the city built them there own building. He says since the police and the fire department respond to many calls together anyway, it might even be more convenient.
THE POLICE STATION
Despite being built a couple decades more recently than the fire hall, the RCMP’s building also suffers from being designed for a kind of policing that no longer exists. The most obvious example of this is the evidence room. Due to the advent of DNA evidence since the building was constructed, police are required to keep evidence longer than they used to, even after the suspect was convicted. This has caused there to be a serious lack of secure storage space for new cases. There’s not even enough regular storage, since many regular police files have to be stored off-site.
The police have several different security concerns with the building as well. The Northern View was shown these problems on the condition that we didn’t describe them specifically. Most of them are just design flaws, the kind that might make one wonder what kind of building the architect thought they were making.
One of the biggest security problems we can describe is that the interrogation rooms are not inside the secure cellblock area which is where they should be. In order for officers to interrogate a suspect, they must take the suspect from the cells, walk them through the RCMP office area and into the rooms. This is a big risk to the office staff, many of whom are not trained police and are not prepared if a suspect became violent on the way through the office.
The secure area is the biggest problem, much like the garage at the fire hall, its too small and monstrously out of date.
Modern jail cells do not have barred doors any more. In an age of communicable disease like HIV, having a door someone can spit or claw at you from is not a good idea. The bars on the cells had to be jerry-rigged with some fibreglass to protect staff.
The cells are also a suicide hazard. Most cells have doors and bunks in them now that don’t have any place for people to hang themselves from, which is one of the most common ways of in-custody death. These cells were built before that was a big concern, and inspector Bob Killbery worries that if they don’t get new cells, its only a matter of time before some one will try.
Not only are the cells obsolete, but there are not enough of them. There are five cells and one holding cell (a.k.a the drunk tank) at the RCMP building. Thats enough in theory for about 12 people at at time, or it would have been years ago. Men, women and young offenders can not be kept in the same cells now, and considering that the RCMP handle 1800 arrests a year, it causes space issues.
According to inspector Killbery, what they want more than anything is an expanded secure area with 12 cells instead of six. But there’s no room on the property for that, and the soil is not good enough to build them on top.
Like the fire chief, Killbery says that he too would be happy with a shared building with the fire department as long as it is designed with security in mind. He says that it would also be an excellent opportunity for cross-training with the firefighters as well.
The decision on what to do will ultimately rest with the city council. The referendum question will only authorize the city to borrow an amount of money if it chooses to.