Province to combine government relations and wildfire management under SPSA

A Sikorsky CH-54B helicopter used to fight forest fires sits at the Prince Albert Airport in July 2015. -- Herald file photo.

The provincial government has announced plans to combine wildfire and emergency management services into a single agency by 2020.

The move means the Minister of Environment’s Wildfire Management Branch and emergency management and safety responsibilities from the Ministry of Government Relations will come together under one organization: the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency (SPSA).

The government says the goal is to provide a more streamlined response to communities in need, which dogged previous firefighting or flood management efforts.

“What we’ve heard from the last couple of major incidents is that we maybe didn’t have the most efficient, the most effective way to respond,’ Government Relations Minister Warren Kaeding said during an interview on Wednesday. “By merging both of these entities into one, we’ve been able to streamline (the response,) which results in a very quick, fast-acting, single point of contact.”

Part of the problem comes from confusion over which ministry to contact if an evacuation is needed. Kaeding and Environment Minister Dustin Duncan said some community leaders didn’t know whether to contact Government Relations or Environment.

They said there was also confusion about where resources from both ministries were deployed, with residents assuming the Wildfire Management branch of the Ministry Environment only dealt with emergencies in the north.

Duncan said that wasn’t the case then and it isn’t the case now. He’s hopeful the change will help smooth out the lines of communication.

“It will certainly, I think, provide for a more streamlined approach in terms of how government interacts with those northern communities, when it comes not only to the strategies that we have for fighting forest fires, but also the response when we do have emergencies,” he said. “For those communities, we’re certainly hopeful that this is going to respond to some of the concerns that have been raised in the past, that there could be better coordination from the government’s standpoint.”

However, northern residents will have to wait at least a year before any major changes. Duncan said they’re already planning for the 2019 wildfire season, and any adjustments made now would disrupt emergency responses, especially early in the season. Wildfire Management will start transitioning once the season ends.

The Ministry of Government Relations will begin moving some of their emergency management capabilities into the SPSA this spring. However, Kaeding said the transition will be gradual so as not to hamper responses to the upcoming spring flooding season.

“You’re working with a very fluid (situation) and we want to ensure that the services that we’re offering are ready and available,” he explained.

Wildfire Management executive director Steve Roberts said operating under the SPSA will give them more flexibility, especially when it comes to sharing resources.

Roberts said they occasionally combine resources with other government agencies to answer major emergency events. That trend will continue, but ideally at a quicker pace.

“The big concern is having one agency to talk to, when there’s an emergency event, that covers all aspects of the emergency,” he said. “There are opportunities for us to work to assist one another, (which) we already do now, but it’s at arm’s length. If they need fire support to help with floods, or we could use some flood personnel to help with fires, it’s a lot easier to do when you’re centralized than (when it’s) two separate entities.”

Roberts said there could be a few minor changes to how they operate once the two groups combine under one agency. However, he said that will depend on how the first year pans out.

“The intent of moving us to the agency is a long-term plan,” he explained. “Once we’re there, of course, we can look and take advantage of whatever efficiencies we can find and be more effective in what we do.”

The provincial government created the SPSA in 2017. It already manages Saskatchewan’s emergency dispatching services. They do not expect to create any extra costs by merging the two departments under one agency. Agency head offices will remain in Regina, with additional offices, dispatch and wildlife centres located across Saskatchewan, including Prince Albert.

The executive structure for the SPSA hasn’t been set, although Kaeding said it will likely involve a CEO and executive director which answer to a board.