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In Support of our Fire Service

Hi Everybody,
On Wednesday night, I attended an informative public meeting at Alderney Landing in Dartmouth regarding the service review being proposed at three fire stations in HRM: #13 on King Street in downtown Dartmouth, #4 on Lady Hammond Road in Halifax and #11 on Patton Road in Upper Sackville. This review is returning to council this coming Tuesday, January 12 so anyone concerned about this should politely let our councillors and/or Mayor’s office know ASAP.

It’s difficult to relay the complexity of this public safety issue without going into some detail so bear with me. If you are busy or hate technicalities then you can skip to the last few paragraphs and work backwards ;).

The service review proposed by Halifax Fire Chief Doug Trussler (on a mandate from outgoing city CAO Richard Butts) would see King Street and Lady Hammond staffed by volunteer firefighters from 5:30 pm – 7 am on weekdays and all weekends and holidays and the Patton Road station would have no career staff, only volunteers.

The argument being made to support this change to service appears to be that the radius these stations cover can be adequately covered by other surrounding, fully staffed stations. There are no layoffs planned but they would redeploy the staff from these three important stations to other stations that routinely run with less than four firefighters.

Normally one would assume a recommendation coming from our city’s Fire Chief would be one in the best interest of the public safety but I am not fully convinced this is the case. I mean this with no disrespect to Chief Trussler. He was given mandate by the CAO that he had to fulfill and I have no doubt that he cares about the city as much as we all do. He has done important work addressing issues the department has faced over the years. This appears to be a budgetary decision that is stuck in his court. There’s a balance to every decision that needs to be made. Money doesn’t grow on trees and fires don’t put themselves out, so meeting somewhere in the middle is the job of bureaucrats and council. Having said that, there is only so far you can carve something up before it ceases to be effective and I believe that in a growing city we need to grow our services, not just shuffle them around from one neighbourhood to the next.

These three stations under review are the first responders in their district but also serve as back up for other districts in HRM. All stations work calls in different parts of the city. King Street station heads across the bridge or picks up a call in another area when that district’s truck may already be on another call elsewhere.

When the Chief says other stations can respond to King Street’s District, he is basing it on a 5 minute response standard developed by HRM in 2006 as an affordable means of identifying triggers for service development in growing suburban areas as they grew to the population density to 100 people per km squared. This was never developed to be applied to the urban areas of Halifax and Dartmouth, which now has over 1000 people/km squared. The industry standard (NFPA) for response is four minutes. Halifax’s fire service is moving farther from what the industry says is acceptable. The Chief also states that 73% of King St Station’s calls are in other districts; this is an actually an indicator of the value of this station, not a redundancy as he is portraying it. King Street backs up other stations to complement adequate response to actual fires. The measure of effectiveness is not only the value of first on scene but to also have enough on scene, quickly, to affect larger scale incidents. The Chief cites three independent studies that came to this conclusion but the studies were based on the flawed response standard that is being used. His mandate is to be “cost neutral” in a growing city but how can we grow a city and not grow the infrastructure and services?

A cut to one station is a blow to all of HRM, but it could significantly jeopardize public safety in the districts where the reductions are. Downtown Dartmouth has large seniors’ homes, high-rises with more being built, and a hundreds of wood-structure buildings, many connected to one another as you see on Portland Street. Fires double in size every minute that passes. A difference of a couple minutes in response time to a call can mean the difference in whether a life or a building can be saved.

At the meeting, IAFF Local 268 President Jim Gates spoke very clearly and much of information I’m relaying came from his speech and from a conversation I had with three fire fighters for an hour after the meeting.

The most important point these guys hammered home is that the service cuts will present a public safety issue for all of HRM, not just the districts where the staffing cuts are happening. They all stressed volunteer fire fighters are skilled and dedicated people providing a great service to the community but having a station staffed only by on-call volunteers can be problematic for several reasons:

1) It increases the response time considerably as the volunteers need to drive to the station from wherever they are and they cannot leave on the truck until four have arrived.

2) As capable as they are, volunteers train for 200 hours, full time staff train for upwards of 520 hours.

3) Volunteers are not always available when needed and volunteerism numbers are down in general.

They also made it clear this is a not a cash grab for the union. They are members of a union whose employees get paid straight time for overtime hours whereas many other unions’ employees get time and a half. They are not looking to milk the public purse. They are not fighting for their jobs, they are fighting to keep the city safe and they are risking their lives daily for our safety.

The idea that four fire fighters sitting on call in a station all night are somehow being deemed redundant is an insult to the work they do. I myself am reassured by the fact that there are four people in the King Street station near my house and Portland Street business being paid to be on call to protect us all.

There are councillors who constituencies aren’t losing firefighters who may vote for these cuts. This may be in part because these changes have been pitched to them as a “cost neutral” gain for their constituencies. By cutting some hours at these three stations it allows other stations to pick up an extra firefighter or two from these newly un-staffed stations. If we care about this municipality we should be investing in keeping all these stations fully staffed.

I’m a huge advocate for investment in the arts as well as preserving our heritage. I’m heavily involved in the fight to revitalize the Khyber Building (more on that later in the month when it returns to council). These issues are very dear to my heart and so worth fighting for. Having said that, I recognize there is always debate about where money should or should not be allocated within the arts and economic sectors. Where I’d hope we could all try to agree is on issues of public safety. What’s more important than putting a fire out or helping a person in duress? It is worth noting that firefighters do a lot more than fight fires, they are often the first responders to medical and structural emergencies.

This service review shimmy the city is trying to deliver to our fire service seems shortsighted in the face of all this development and construction. That’s not to say certain changes and updates needs to happen. Data collection, analysis and review can allow us to make smarter decisions but I think it’s also important to listen to the people working on the ground. If the firefighters feel understaffed and vulnerable then it undermines their ability to protect our city.

It is important to remind ourselves that hiring more firefighters is not throwing money into a black hole or into a Black Eyed Peas concert. It is providing important jobs while increasing our safety. We heard a lot of talk about job creation when they made the pitch for the new, publicly subsidized trade centre or the renegotiation for the shipbuilding property tax bill. Union President Gates stated that to properly staff the stations with full crews on deck the municipality needs 45 new firefighters over next five years. This may seem like a lot of money but to me it is money well spent. These jobs support families in our city and that money goes back into local business. The King Street station orders in food from shops in downtown Dartmouth while on shift and all that money moves through our community. We must remind ourselves of that when we are tempted to buy into the cost cutting mentality.

Perhaps I’m on the wrong side of a visionary, streamlined version of the fire department or maybe it’s my selfish desire to have fully staffed fire service blocks away from my home and business, but I can’t help but feel this is in fact an erosion of a service in a growing city, all due to fiscal concerns. As my councilor, Gloria McCluskey, pointed out at the meeting, if we can find the money to build and maintain an incredible new library we should be able to find the money to support our fire service. And if the money simply isn’t there, then perhaps we citizens have make up the difference in taxes (my words, not Gloria’s ;)).

When buildings burn down it causes our insurance rates to go up and it’s likely our insurance rates will go up in certain neighbourhoods regardless when the companies recognize there is less coverage. So we should ask ourselves: Would you rather your money go to an insurance company or to pay firefighters to staff our stations over night?

I write this post in support our fire department, with love for our city, and with much respect for everyone working for it: city staff, Mayor Savage, all our councillors and all those working in municipal services.

Thanks for reading! Spread the word, email your councillors your concerns, and feel free to share this post.

– Joel Plaskett