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Volunteer Vision: June 2010

Times they are a-changin’ and the fire service is going to have to find other ways to deliver services. The federal government is set to reduce funding to the provincial governments, which, in turn, will reduce funding to municipal governments and you know what that means – reduced fire department budgets.

June 3, 2010
By Brad Patton

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Times they are a-changin’ and the fire service is going to have to find other ways to deliver services. The federal government is set to reduce funding to the provincial governments, which, in turn, will reduce funding to municipal governments and you know what that means – reduced fire department budgets.

It doesn’t look like anyone is going to come to our rescue. Fire chiefs and fire departments are going to have to solve the problems on their own. It won’t matter if it’s a large city fire department or a small volunteer department – everyone is going to feel the cuts and the only difference will be in the decimal points. In larger cities, fire department budgets are often the biggest municipal expenditures whereas in the smaller communities department budgets are often the municipality’s third-largest expenditure. Either way, a 10 per cent or 20 per cent budget cut is very hard to manage.

Most fire departments have been fine-tuning their budgets for years and there is very little remaining to give up without major service cuts or staffing reductions. Governments have been implementing alternative service delivery (ASD) models for some time now. ASD models could also be used in the fire service.

My suggestion is to take a very close look at regionalizing, or the sharing of services. We are talking about economies of scale. In some cases this might be difficult. There will be union and volunteer issues but we need to work together to survive the financial crises. There are services we could share with other departments as a first step toward a more co-operative fire service, which, I believe, would increase our service levels and be cost efficient.

Take, for example, fire prevention, public education and fire investigation. There is no legal reason (of which I am aware) why these services have to be provided by each municipal fire department. Often these services are required but they may be provided in almost any way. Depending on your location and relationships with other fire departments, two, three, four or more departments could share the cost and hire a full-time or even part-time fire prevention officer to provide fire code inspections/enforcement, public education and/or fire investigation.

Perhaps if your department is located near a larger department that already has these services you arrange to have the full-time FPO spend one or two days a week or month – depending on the needs in your municipality – providing these important services. This type of arrangement would help to reduce the city’s labour budget while providing a service to the rural committees.

The training and education requirements for an FPO are at a level now that makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for a volunteer firefighter to commit the time needed to qualify as a fire prevention officer. There just isn’t enough time in the day. The liability for a municipality that has a poorly trained FPO is too great. If an FPO does an inspection and misses an important life safety device that is required in a building, or orders in a sprinkler system only to find out it wasn’t needed, the municipality will be in a lot of trouble. Also, inspections need to be followed up in a timely manner and, if needed, charges must be laid. All of these issues are very important and require a great deal of time.

Contracting out or sharing of these services also has another benefit. Often in smaller communities conflict of interest issues can arise. Local businesses can be owned by relatives of the volunteer complement or by members of the department themselves.

It just makes sense to me to collectively fund a well-trained person who has the skills and commitment to provide this service.

This plan requires a couple of important decisions to be made at the local level. Firstly, how important are fire prevention, public education and proper fire investigations? Secondly, can these services be provided locally by a part-time person with all of the required training and education? Finally, can area fire chiefs work together to make this a reality?

The second part of this plan would be to consider the above arguments but include or replace the FPO with a training officer; we need to review the ideas of shared training, mechanical officers and administrative support as well.

I could write another page on the virtues of a regional, or a group of fire departments sharing resources . . . Think about it. It’s time to start working together and pooling our resources and ideas to ensure our fire departments are sustainable and provide the professional service that the public has grown to expect.


Brad Patton is fire chief for the Centre Wellington Volunteer Fire Rescue Department in Ontario. Centre Wellington, with a population of 28,000, covers 410 square kilometres and has stations in Fergus and Elora.


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