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Fire services reviewing efficiencies

Changes may be in store for how the city's fire services are operated, including the possibility of fewer fire stations in the city, as well as the introduction of user fees.
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An extensive review of the city's fire services will help shape the future of services delivery in Greater Sudbury. File photo.
Changes may be in store for how the city's fire services are operated, including the possibility of fewer fire stations in the city, as well as the introduction of user fees.

In February, the city's operations committee gave the green light for its fire services to engage in a comprehensive review to investigate benefits, disadvantages, costs and risks associated with the service. The current fire services has evolved from an amalgamation of multiple fire services in 2001, and has not been reviewed relative to the city's current fire services needs.

There has never been a review of the services to this extent, Tim Beadman, chief of Emergency Services, said. Staff reviewed contents of the Master Fire Plan back in 2002 and 2003, but nothing has been done in the eight years since then. “Now we want to go back and take a look at what's working, what's not working and what has changed.”

“Is it relevant? Is it current? Should we be doing something different? I don't really know, and those are the things we want to explore,” he said.

The review is one of 38 strategic recommendations the department will consider in an effort to improve services, Beadman said. It will take into account the growth of residential and commercial areas, as well as the protection needs and wants of the city.

“The potential activities in the valley corridor out to the Capreol area, should the chromite plant goes through, will change the makeup of that area,” Beadman said. “Those are things we need to look at with planning.”

Staff will also consider as part of the review the potential to decrease the number of fire stations in the city. The city's fire services division is comprised of 132 full-time staff, including 108 career firefighters and about 340 volunteer firefighters operating out of 24 fire stations.

“We're not saying we're closing any stations, we aren't anywhere even near that discussion,” Beadman said. “But we need to investigate what the risks and hazards are in each of the communities, what are the trends, and have the demographics changed.”

User fees will form the basis of another investigation, Beadman said. The city already has several user fees in its bylaw right now, for such events as speciality rescues and services provided outside city property, and staff want to determine if even those are correct. While there's no decision on anything right now, user fees would be covered by insurance companies, he added.

“(User fees) are a huge subject matter,” Beadman said. “Those who pay less are probably happy, and those who pay more probably aren't. From a service and public safety perspective, we will look at whether there are any systems, such as area rating, impacting the way we deliver services, and if we can improve it.”

Suppression operations in Greater Sudbury are subject to an area rating, meaning there are different service levels for different areas of the city, ranging from full-time career firefighters in the city's core to volunteer firefighters supported by a few full-time career firefighters in the former Valley East to volunteer firefighters serving all other sections of the city.

The area rating, it has been suggested according to a report from the city's emergency services department, needs to be reviewed to determine whether it is having an impact on service delivery.

The review will also look at the city's investment in fire services, in particular, how the city's investment compares to fire services costs in other municipalities of similar size, which will provide a “great opportunity” to see where Sudbury needs to be in the next five to 10 years, and to “benchmark against other communities.”

The review will be done through third-party expertise to provide the necessary oversight support for the scope of the project. The lion's share of the work will be done by staff, Beadman said, but a consultant will guide working committees under best practices and help map out how to get to the elements staff need to look at in the review.

Requests for Proposals for a consultant will likely go out this month, and probably close in May, Beadman said. In June, stall will put a framework in place as to how they are going to do proceed. Over the summer, the emergency services department loses a lot of staff due to vacation time, so that time will be dedicated to collecting all the needed background material, such as call volumes, and then committee work would begin in September.

“We're hoping to be completed in the second quarter of 2013,” Beadman said.

Meanwhile, significant changes in the corporate reporting structure and the management of fire services are factors in the need to renew the city's fire regulating bylaw framework.

Fire protection in Ontario is a provincially mandated municipal responsibility. The current bylaw does not provide an accurate depiction of the core services being provided by Greater Sudbury Fire Services, which creates potential liability issues, according to Fire Chief Dan Stack. Today's fire services focus on prevention and protection over suppression.

A revised bylaw is needed to reflect the diversity of the geographical and topographical nature of the city and the staffing of the fire services division, according to a report from the city's emergency services department. By changing or adding words such as “limited services” and incorporating a levels of service section, it would reduce potential liability issues.

The draft bylaw will meet the recommendations of the Office of the Ontario Fire Marshal and will be comparable to other municipal fire department bylaws. The draft is now under review by the city's legal services and, upon completion, staff will bring it back to the community services committee for consideration.

Posted by Arron Pickard