Guest column: November 2012
By William Stewart
City managers and chief administration officers have sounded the alarm once again to do more with less
By William Stewart
City managers and chief administration officers have sounded the alarm once again to do more with less, run cities and towns as businesses and try to be as cost effective as the private sector.
Division heads and general managers are again scrambling to provide service to their respective communities. We are all aware of the fiscal challenges, and the impact on public safety hangs in the balance.
Councils have ratified collective agreements with their unions or have been impacted by arbitration awards. Elected officials are instructing CAOs to maintain 2012 budgets for 2013, knowing that there are increased labour costs associated with the collective agreements.
In Ontario, legislation has been passed to freeze wages for teachers and further action has been started that will impact the greater public sector. (Labour costs account for between 90 and 92 per cent of fire-department operating budgets.)
My concern hinges on the ability of fire services now and in the future to respond to the citizens we serve. I firmly believe that fire services continue to be underfunded and understaffed at the municipal level and do not receive sufficient funding to ensure public safety. Unlike our emergency-service partners, there is no additional funding provided by the province to offset the municipal tax base for the fire service in Ontario. How long the provincial funding will remain in place is unknown. Given the size of operating and capital budgets for fire and EMS, there is a move to consider amalgamating the services. In Toronto, the administrative and financial accounting functions for fire and EMS were amalgamated as a result of a 2008 consultant’s review. Another study is underway to determine future opportunities for amalgamation. Is there duplication on the street in sending fire, EMS and police to medical emergencies? The answer from my perspective is no: the fire service must respond to life-threatening medical emergencies to assist citizens. The fire service is equipped, trained and more than capable of providing basic life support until paramedics arrive.
City managers, CAOs and elected officials continue to ask why duplicate services. From their perspective, reducing emergency incidents to which fire responds will, in effect, reduce fire-department budgets. Politicians argue that the numbers of fires are down, therefore why have fire departments? Why not at least reduce staffing, thereby reducing cost. Is there really a need for new fire stations and the ongoing replacement of firefighting equipment as the population density along with building stock increases? Is there really a need to recruit and maintain current staffing levels? From my perspective the answer is yes; we must continue to serve the public by providing cost-effective services that ensure public safety and firefighter health and safety based on the municipality’s risk assessment. I argue that there are many cities across the country that have not done a recent fire-risk analysis and are not aware of the risks for firefighters as they face lightweight construction, flashover in three minutes and floor collapse in lightweight construction in the six- to seven-minute range.
Elected officials are either not being informed through the budget process or they are ignoring the reality that is facing fire departments as they arrive on scene in excess of seven, eight or 10 minutes. Response times and NFPA 1710 will be debated across the country along with various scientific fire-ground studies that will impact firefighter staffing and result in an increase – not a decrease – of firefighters on a vehicle.
In large centres, we are seeing an increase in highrise condominium construction. Toronto is now second in North America for residential highrises. As firefighters, we take into account the vertical response time once the fire vehicle has arrived. Scientific studies have taken place to determine crew size, equipment required, search and rescue, along with the deployment of an effective hose layout and fire attack for highrise buildings. I predict there will once again be great debate by the elected officials and senior bureaucrats as the fire service comes forward with additional budget requests based on these studies. The bureaucracy must be made aware of the potential impact to public safety should staffing be reduced or delayed as a result of gapping firefighter positions to offset the operating budget of the fire department. The bureaucrats and politicians are gambling that there will not be an impact to the public or firefighter safety by not providing the funding or undertaking fire-risk assessments of their municipalities.
In accordance with the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, the fire chief is the person responsible to city council in Ontario, not the city manager or CAO. Ensure that your elected officials and senior bureaucrats are aware of provincial acts or regulations and their responsibilities under the legislation. Ultimately, city council will determine the level of service to be provided and, as such, councillors must be informed to provide due diligence for their decisions on fire-department budgets. The fire chief will provide a professional opinion based on the needs of the service and the community. Underfunded fire departments will face the potential for civil litigation due to delayed response or trucks out of service.
Retired Chief William Stewart, FIFireE, CFO, CMM, has more than 39 years of fire-service experience, having served in the former City of North York Fire Department for 26 years prior to the amalgamation of the new City of Toronto on Jan. 1, 1998. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org