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Councillors pour cold water on fire plan

Proposal to close station, hire full-time firefighters fails to receive a single vote in favour
Some residents showed up to Wednesday's city council meeting decked out in T-shirts in support of volunteer firefighters. Councillors rejected the report. (Darren MacDonald photo.)

The controversial fire optimization report failed to receive a single vote in support at a special city council meeting Wednesday, effectively killing for now any plans to hire more permanent firefighters or close any volunteer stations.

In front of a packed council chambers, councillor after councillor made it clear the plan has next to no public support. Instead, it has made many residents fearful they would lose their volunteer firefighting station and still pay much higher property taxes.

The plan outlines what it's going to cost to renovate and upgrade existing fire stations – about $4 million a year over the next 10 years. It also includes proposals for making response times more consistent across the city, a move that would cost more than $6 million a year and involve hiring 58 more career firefighters and reducing reliance on volunteers.

While the most expensive option would allow firefighters to respond to emergencies in 90 per cent of the city within 10 minutes, the proposals have angered volunteers, while paramedics feel ignored in the plan, even though they are running at capacity. 

Fire Chief Trevor Bain, who has received a lot of criticism since the plan was unveiled last month, said the data showed the dire state of some of the stations and the need for more equipment.

“We normally tell you everything is OK,” Bain said, adding that staff had “pulled back the curtain” to show the public what was needed. But that doesn't mean staff expected council to endorse the full plan.

“This process has been difficult for many,” he said. “The analysis is intended to provide data for council decisions.”

Mayor Brian Bigger said early on Wednesday that the “ultimate optimization plan” proposed by staff was beyond what the city could afford.

“We're all looking for the best outcome for all of our residents (but) the plan being proposed is incredibly costly,” Bigger said. “We're looking for an affordable optimization plan that we feel comfortable with.”

Ward 4 Coun. Evelyn Dutrisac said residents are asking her what the costs in the plan will mean to their taxes. And they have other priorities higher than improving a service they feel is working well already.

“The road conditions in some of our communities are a hazard for trucks getting to a fire,” Dutrisac said. “Volunteers have been giving our community excellent services for years. (Now) we've created stress and fear in our communities because we told them we're going to close their fire halls.”

Ward 5 Coun. Bob Kirwan was pleased the plan wasn't approved, and said they can now focus on collective bargaining with firefighters and on the task force he and Ward 2 Coun. Michael Vagnini are spearheading to increase the number of volunteer firefighters.

“Now we can get our collective bargaining done,” Kirwan said. 

“And our volunteers will be ramped back up.”

Ward 7 Coun. Mike Jakubo said he had serious concerns about whether the task force can succeed in finding enough new volunteers in areas where they are needed. The report said the main challenge in some more remote parts of the city is finding enough qualified people interested in volunteering.

“Maybe I'm wrong,” Jakubo said. “But one thing any task force is not going to be able to do is change where people live and work.” 

For his part, Bain urged councillors to give them some direction on establishing service response times for different parts of the city. As it stands now, firefighters respond to emergencies without any benchmarks for how fast they should arrive.

“We have not put in some sort of performance-based standard that says what kind of job we're doing for our citizens,” he said. “We're missing an opportunity if we don't do that, (but) it's council's decision, not mine.”

Bigger said the focus now will be getting the current system operating as well as it can through station and other health and safety improvements.


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