The Vancouver fire department has spent close to $1 million to build five new “gender-neutral” washrooms in five firehalls that already have at least one existing unisex washroom used by male and female firefighters.
Four of the new washrooms were built within the past year at a cost of $150,000 to $200,000 each, with a fifth washroom currently under construction, according to Mark Engler, deputy chief of operations for Vancouver and Fire Rescue Services.
“We don’t want to call them women-only,” said Engler, when asked if the washrooms were built strictly for the department’s 18 female firefighters. “The washrooms will be open to anyone who needs to use them. There isn’t a designation on the washrooms saying men’s or women’s.”
Engler didn’t immediately have a breakdown of costs for each washroom but said the lowest bill came in at $150,000 while others were more expensive. Though the tab may seem higher than the cost of renovating an average bathroom in a house, the expense is always greater for civic buildings, he said.
Construction of the washrooms included fees paid to a project manager and an architect. Some of the firehalls also required removal of hazardous material, including asbestos, to bring in new plumbing to build the washrooms.
Engler said the decision to add the washrooms, which are equipped with a sink, toilet and shower, was not driven by a complaint by any of the female firefighters. “It was actually the other way around — they didn’t want to be separated out, they felt they could work around it but we felt that wasn’t appropriate,” he said, adding that a female firefighter shouldn’t have to use the same washroom where a male firefighter is brushing his teeth. “It’s not fair to the woman, or vice-versa.”
Engler pointed out “gender-neutral” washrooms have existed in other halls in the city for many years and have been included in the construction of new halls. He said “it’s the right thing to do” and pointed out having single shower stalls gives a firefighter more privacy than group shower rooms that exist in many of the older halls.
Vancouver has 20 firehalls but the department has no plans to add new washrooms to each one because some, including the main hall at 900 Heatley Ave., are slated to be redeveloped in future years.
Gord Ditchburn, president of the Vancouver Firefighters Union, said he hasn’t received any complaints from female or male firefighters about the current unisex washrooms. Ditchburn said there is an understanding between men and women when using the washrooms, particularly the showers.
“What we’ve got is very professional people — male and female — that are very tolerable of each other,” he said. “If I need a shower or you need a shower, the appropriate arrangement is made so that I get my appropriate time in the shower to use it. I’ve worked on multiple shifts with female firefighters and have not encountered problems along the way. Everybody is appreciative of each other’s time and space, and we work through it.”
He described the five new washrooms as “niceties” and said the money could probably be better spent on maintenance of halls and more training for firefighters.
NPA Coun. George Affleck also questioned the costs of the washrooms. He said the washrooms didn’t seem necessary if there were no complaints about the setup at firehalls.
“I think the firefighters would agree — the thing they want most is more firefighters,” he said when asked what the money spent on the washrooms could have been used for instead.