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Flashpoint: November 2013

Fire services big and small across Canada are feeling the pinch. Budgets are under pressure, forcing some tough choices to be made soon.

November 12, 2013 
By Peter Sells

Fire services big and small across Canada are feeling the pinch. Budgets are under pressure, forcing some tough choices to be made soon. What choices, and how soon, depend on the local specifics. Some of these decisions are relatively minor adjustments, but others may involve drastic re-engineering of fire-service delivery models.

In late September, the employment of Winnipeg Fire Chief Reid Douglas was terminated just as a review of the city’s $17.8-million fire-paramedic station replacement program was to be released. The year-long review by number crunchers Ernst & Young looked at the rationale for building four new stations, examined the way development contracts were awarded, assessed the value received by taxpayers and scrutinized all oversight processes involved in the projects. The review was not a public document when I wrote this column, so there was no indication of how it is related, if it is at all, to the ending of Douglas’s long and successful career in Winnipeg.

What is clear is that money for fire protection in Winnipeg is tight. The department’s overtime bill for 2013 is expected to be in excess of 200 per cent over budget by year’s end. The department has not replaced 34 vacant firefighter positions or those of another 16 firefighters on long-term disability. Absenteeism is under scrutiny – a legitimate management function that sometimes leads to finger-pointing and misunderstanding. Consideration is being given to eliminating secondary apparatuses at two stations, provided that response times and firefighter and public safety can be safeguarded. All of these are situations that could be solved as soon as large bags of cash start falling from the sky, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for that.

How about a medium-sized city such as London, Ont.? A pending contract arbitration may award firefighters pay increases of more than 11 per cent over the next four years if parity with police wages is granted. Mayor Joe Fontana maintains that the city simply cannot afford such an increase without balancing it through some sort of cost-cutting measures. The concept of police parity was the focus of a report commissioned by the City of London. The report by Deloitte’s job-evaluation specialist Sandra Haydon concludes that first-class police officers have more complex decision-making responsibilities than first-class firefighters and should be paid two pay grades higher. This could then be interpreted as justification for paying first-class firefighters two pay grades below police parity. The City of Barrie and the Barrie Professional Fire Fighters Association (BPFFA) are also waiting for an arbitration award that may mirror the wage and benefit increases the city gave to police in 2010. Given the history of similar arbitration awards in Ontario, BPFFA members will likely receive parity with their crime-fighting colleagues regardless of the city’s ability to sustain those salary levels. So far, there are two options on the table: fewer firefighters or lower firefighter pay. Are there other ways to create efficiencies in service delivery?


A consultant’s review received by the City of Thorold, Ont., in March suggested several efficiency options, including two that would have Thorold share fire services with the neighbouring, and larger, St. Catharines Fire Department. Thorold’s council declined to advance the shared-service options to the public discussion phase.

A shared-service model is not without precedent in Ontario. Since 2002, the towns of Newmarket and Aurora have jointly funded and operated Central York Fire Services, overseen by a joint council committee made up of three members from each of the town councils.

A jointly operated fire service is one way neighbours can work together. Contracted service agreements are another. In Newfoundland, the town of Logy Bay-Middle Cove-Outer Cove is facing a decision as to whether or not it will keep its volunteer fire department, or contract all services to the St. John’s Regional Fire Department. In this case, the decision is not driven by cost, but by effectiveness. A recent consultant’s review found that the low number of volunteers who are able to attend fire calls is resulting in inadequate fire protection for the town. 

In my May column I looked at a study by University of Toronto economics PhD candidate Adam Found, titled Economies of Scale in Fire and Police Services in Ontario. Found’s analysis suggests that full-time, career fire departments are about 35 per cent costlier than composite or volunteer fire departments. The City of Brockville, Ont., looked at that study, as well a service-delivery review by Toronto-based Western Management Consultants, which recommends changing the fire department to “a composite model of service delivery,” combining full-time with part-time firefighters, and possibly volunteers. Interestingly, the Western Management report also predicts operational savings of about 35 per cent, backing up Found’s findings. North Bay, Ont., is also reviewing its full-time staffing model.

We’ve been spouting buzz phrases such as doing more with less, and working smarter, for decades. It may be time to put those concepts into action.

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. 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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