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Dec. 12, 2012, Toronto – Fire departments and municipal councils across Canada are feeling budget pressures and facing tough decisions that could potentially impact public safety. That statement is blatantly obvious and does not in any way reflect a new reality. Let’s look at four situations from the www.firefightingincanada.com and www.firehall.com home pages over the last week or so.

December 13, 2012
By Peter Sells

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Dec. 12, 2012, Toronto – Fire departments and municipal councils across Canada are feeling budget pressures and facing tough decisions that could potentially impact public safety. That statement is blatantly obvious and does not in any way reflect a new reality. Let’s look at four situations from the www.firefightingincanada.com and www.firehall.com home pages over the last week or so.

A CBC story lists nine communities, large and small, across Alberta that are in negotiations, arbitration or mediation with their firefighters locals. Looking at Medicine Hat, the story quotes alderman Jeremy Thompson saying that the firefighters’ request for a five per cent increase, as opposed to the two per cent to three per cent offered by the city, is too much. "It was quite a bit higher than what we came in at, especially when this would make our fire department higher paid than our police department and leapfrog Calgary and Edmonton," Thompson said. In Alberta, the question appears to be how much of an increase is too much?

In New Brunswick, the question may be, how much of a cut is too deep? The Saint John fire budget of $20 million is under heavy scrutiny. In another CBC story, a councillor asked Fire Chief Kevin Clifford, "If the most money we were able to give you was $18 million . . . what would you do?" "I'd have to close a station," Clifford replied. The Saint John fire department employs 156 full-time firefighters and another 19 part-time staff to serve 70,000 people. As the CBC piece pointed out, the Saint John fire budget is close to that of St. John's, N.L., which covers an area with twice the population, supporting six neighbouring communities. Of course, there are no two fire departments that can be true apples-to-apples comparisons, but is there room to trim the budget in Saint John? That is, of course, a question to be asked and answered locally. In September, 81 per cent of respondents who participated in a survey at a public meeting said either the city should look for a new model or should cut the fire department's budget and reduce the service.

A new model. For years, we have been hearing the visionaries spout platitudes about working smarter, not harder. Is that just more guru-babble or can it be done? Vancouver seems to think that it can. VFRS reduced fire call response times by 44 seconds between 2009 and 2012. This was done by adopting new tactics for determining the most efficient routes to emergency scenes, as well as through the strategic re-deployment of fire apparatus. In British Columbia, the question being answered is, how can we do more with what we have?

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The biggest, or at least the loudest, news is coming from Toronto, where 104 positions are being cut from the 2013 fire budget. One fire station will be closed if council approves fire chief Jim Sales’ budget proposal early next year, and four fire trucks will be removed from service in multiple-apparatus stations. A reality check; Toronto Fire Services has been operating with those positions vacant, and an average of 5.6 apparatus out of service, throughout 2012. Claims from the former fire chief and the current union president that these cuts will result in increases in response time are essentially saying that if the status quo is not changed, the situation will get worse. Bill Stewart, the former fire chief, fought hard to hold the line on staffing and apparatus reductions throughout his tenure. Ed Kennedy, president of Toronto’s IAFF local, wouldn’t be doing his job unless he vehemently opposed such measures. But the fact is that the station to be closed, TFS Station 424, has been on the chopping block since at least the late 1980s. As Toronto Fire Department Station 34, its utility was questioned in several master fire plans. Since the 1998 municipal amalgamation, 424 sits in the middle of a triangle of three neighbouring stations, each less than 1.7 kilometres away.

At a public meeting Sunday to discuss the cuts, Sales quoted Tom Peters from his 1999 book The Circle of Innovation, saying that “You can’t shrink your way to greatness.” While that may be true, Sales was clearly given a mandate when he was hired earlier this year to get the budget under control. Fire chiefs report to municipal councils, after all, and councils set the parameters under which fire chiefs operate. It has always been this way.

In the current economic climate, and for the foreseeable future, any improvements to Toronto’s response times will clearly not be coming from increases in staffing. You may not be able to shrink your way to greatness, but inaction and inertia won’t get you there either. In fairness, Stewart points out that Toronto’s 90th percentile response time, from call receipt to arrival on scene, has improved by over 30 seconds in the last year to 7:06; but few, if any, departments can meet the unrealistic benchmark of 6:20 as set out in NFPA standards 1221 and 1710. What remains to be seen is whether Toronto can follow the lead of Vancouver – or other fire services across the globe – in using new methods of deployment and staffing to achieve efficiencies and improve service. The same old methods are no longer the way to address the same old problems.

Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory council of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo.


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