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Flashpoint: August 2013

In the last week of June, the City of Toronto released a consultant’s report, A Service and Organizational Study of Toronto’s Emergency Medical Services and Fire Services, which had been tendered 16 months earlier.

July 29, 2013 
By Peter Sells

In the last week of June, the City of Toronto released a consultant’s report, A Service and Organizational Study of Toronto’s Emergency Medical Services and Fire Services, which had been tendered 16 months earlier. Included as background and context for the study were excerpts from a previous core service review of all city departments. The core service review was intended to identify opportunities for service efficiencies, through changes to services and/or service levels, while ensuring that all mandated or essential standard service levels would continue to be met. The opportunities identified for Toronto Fire Services (TFS):

  •     Consider integrating EMS and fire organizationally and developing new models to shift more resources to EMS response and fewer to fire response over time.
  •     Consider the opportunities to improve fire response times and decrease equipment requirements through dynamic staging.

I will deal with dynamic staging in a future column, but I want to point to that first bullet item as evidence that the study was conceived under the assumption that operational fire resources could be decommissioned in favour of ambulance without any reduction in fire protection.

Further, neither the core service review nor the terms of the study made any mention of including a comprehensive risk analysis for the city.

The core service review was completed, and the study tendered, just as former fire chief Bill Stewart was set to retire. When Stewart was originally appointed, he had been given a clear mandate to repair what were, at the time, very contentious labour relations, and he met that challenge, along with the intelligent leadership of Scott Marks, the former president of the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters Association. The two leaders settled issues dating back to the 1998 amalgamation of the City of Toronto (the largest municipal reorganization in Canadian history), achieving along the way two unprecedented collective agreements, totalling in the billions of dollars.


After Stewart’s retirement, and with the study already underway, Fire Chief Jim Sales was appointed with a mandate to reduce costs. In relatively short order, Sales delivered a plan to decrease TFS staffing by more than 100 full-time equivalent positions, including the elimination of firefighter positions that had been vacant for several years, and to close Station 424, which had previously been recommended for closure in 1987, 1999 and 2007. When it came time to put those reductions into action, council backed away.

In my consulting work, I have had the privilege to meet and work with municipal council members from various Canadian communities, mostly smaller towns. I have found a major difference between those councillors and their big-city counterparts. The small-town councillors are, at most, paid a modest stipend for their work. They otherwise are employed within the community, often as business owners. Big-city councillors are career politicians, whose substantial livelihoods depend on the will of the electorate every four years. The result is a vastly different pattern of decision-making.

It is my opinion that small-town volunteer councillors exhibit greater concern and put deeper thought into the financial implications of their decisions, and show greater commitment to building political consensus and delivering clear direction to their civil servants, compared to their professional, big-city cousins. Small-town councillors have less money to waste, and less cash to toss around for patronage or to buy votes in the next election. There is no room to vacillate on strategic decisions.

In The Art of War, Sun Tsu wrote, “In war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign, collects his army and concentrates his forces.” In our context, the fire chief receives a mandate upon appointment by the council, takes stock of the department’s resources, and applies them accordingly. Sun Tsu also wrote, “He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.” In other words, give the chief appropriate political marching orders, provide the needed resources, and then stay out of the way.

Well, the ball is now back in Toronto council’s court. The study has included the closure of Station 424 in its recommendations, along with an increase in TFS staffing of 100 full-time-equivalent positions in fire prevention and public education. EMS is recommended to increase by the equivalent of 25.5 staffed ambulance units, but not at the expense of fire staffing. A citywide, comprehensive fire-risk analysis is recommended, correcting the glaring omission from the core service review.

In the meantime, let’s watch and see if Toronto’s professional councillors can actually make a decision or two.

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 and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo.

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