Skead residents plan on pushing back hard against a city recommendation that would see their fire station permanently close.
They blame the city for low volunteerism at the station (currently sitting at one member), which has relegated it to near-redundancy and helped make the case for its shuttering.
The proposed closure joins various other planned consolidations and relocations put forward in a report the city’s elected officials are currently mulling over, and which will be the focus of a series of community meetings expected to begin in early April.
Under the plan, the Skead fire hall would consolidate with Falconbridge and Garson at a new ideal location in Garson.
Ward 7 Coun. Natalie Labbée tabled a 417-name petition “and growing” from Skead residents earlier this year which aims to save their fire station.
Resident Nicole Everest started the petition, and argued that although the ongoing emergency stations review focuses solely on buildings, it carries much broader implications.
“It’s just a small piece of the (bigger) puzzle that city council should be looking at,” she told Sudbury.com. “There are large and significant consequences to communities like Skead, Beaver Lake, etc. ... Once you close this station it will never reopen.”
The Skead station has not been in operation since early 2022, when a vehicle badly damaged the building by backing up into a pillar located between its two garage doors.
City Fire and Paramedic Services Chief Joseph Nicholls said the decision was made at the time to not repair the hall until the emergency services infrastructure review concludes, arguing there’s little sense in repairing a building that might be permanently closed.
Another strike against it was its low number of volunteer members.
Since 2016, he said seven people have applied to join the department and five were hired.
“We’re down to one,” he told Sudbury.com this week. “Even with five ... when you’re looking at fire responses, you’re looking at a single firefighter responding, which doesn’t have any real capability to do anything to mitigate a fire or an emergency event.”
With the Skead station closed, the Garson station has been responding to calls in the area, which Nicholls notes they have already been doing for the past several years.
“This is not a high volume station,” Nicholls said, adding that the Skead department is meant to respond to approximately seven calls per year.
With the Garson station already responding to all calls in the Skead area, the proposed consolidation into a new location in Garson isn’t expected to dramatically impact response times.
But, what if the Skead station were fully staffed?
Rather than have volunteers converge approximately 15 minutes away at a fire station in Garson before driving out to Skead, they’d be in the community from the start.
Response times would be much shorter as a result.
This big “what if?” is what area residents are hinging their argument on, alleging the city has not done an adequate job of recruiting volunteers.
Closing the station is a “pre-determined result,” Everest said, with fellow community advocate Karleigh Farnel adding, “It feels like we’ve been set up.”
Longtime resident Rose Rice said her husband, Stanley, was a member of the fire department for approximately 30 years beginning in 1974, during a time in which the community took care of themselves.
“When the city took over here, some of the firemen were not happy,” she said, adding there hasn’t been enough recruitment or information from the city in recent years.
On March 4, Everest said a group of seniors went doorknocking to recruit volunteers for the fire department, and found 18 candidates, which later whittled down to approximately 15 eager to push forward with applications.
“These are well-qualified people,” she said, adding that many of them didn’t even know the city was continually recruiting for volunteer firefighters.
“If there’s a credible effort made to recruit, there are people interested in the community.”
In conversation with Sudbury.com, Nicholls countered that the city accepts applications year-round, and takes in new recruits annually.
Banners advertising the need for volunteer firefighters are put up at community halls when they’re in active recruiting periods, signs are installed on roadways, and members hand out business cards at public events and put up approximately hundreds of posters.
Existing volunteers are given flyers they’re encouraged to hand out to colleagues and friends, with Nicholls noting, “One of the best recruiters is another volunteer.”
“I don’t have the staff to go to every door in the community,” he said, adding that he looks forward to seeing how many of the people Skead seniors recruited follow through.
“You have to be dedicated,” he said. “You have to be a firefighter, but if you’re just trying to keep a hall open, I don’t think that’s going to carry you through.”
Although the city’s volunteer firefighter program used to require a minimum of 40 hours of training to start work, the province’s new standard requires at least 220 hours. All firefighters must complete the program by July 1, 2026. That is, aside from approximately 70 volunteer firefighters in Greater Sudbury who will be grandfathered in and not require additional training to continue serving.
Past reports recommended keeping Skead open
Although the latest proposal in front of city council recommends consolidating Skead with Falconbridge and Garson at a new ideal location in Garson, Everest pointed out that past municipal reports recommended keeping the Skead fire station open.
The rejected 2017 “Fire and Paramedic Services Optimization Final Report” recommended that the Skead station be renovated or rebuilt in 2020. At the time, the station was credited with offering water rescue.
The IBI Group’s 2014 “Comprehensive Fire Services Review” recommended that the Skead station be maintained and that the nearby Falconbridge station close.
“Were the Skead station to be closed, one may anticipate that for occupancies in the current Skead service area, response times are likely to increase by at least 15 to 20 minutes.”
Beaver Lake fire station in a similar situation
When it comes to the Beaver Lake volunteer fire station, community advocate Brenda Salo said “ditto” to much of what the Skead station currently faces.
Like the Skead station, only approximately one volunteer firefighter has been responding to local calls for service in recent years, necessitating other area stations to come out.
“We have not had an appropriate fire service since before 2017,” she said, blaming the city for failing to attract and train enough firefighters.
The city is currently recommending that the Beaver Lake fire station consolidate with the Whitefish station, in Whitefish.
Salo is currently finalizing a petition to city council seeking to save the Beaver Lake fire station, which already has approximately 330 signatures.
Community stewards are also working on a “media blitz,” the details of which they plan on hashing out during a meeting on Wednesday.
Community meetings expected to begin in April
A series of public meetings centred around the city’s proposed changes to emergency services infrastructure are expected to begin in April.
“We’re not giving up,” Everest said, adding that her group of community advocates plan on attending the meeting and advocating for others to join them.
With the cost of maintaining the city’s 24 existing emergency service stations slated to cost $43 million over the next decade, Nicholls said the recommendations in front of city council aims to resolve a longstanding concern.
“We’re not addressing all the modern needs of a modern service -- larger garage spaces, washroom and shower facilities to wash the products of combustion off of (firefighters) that can potentially lead to cancers that are presumptive in fire services for compensation,” he said.
“Although it has operational implications, it’s an asset renewal project, and that’s what we’re trying to do.
“We’ve looked at this several times, and we know we can deliver relatively the same level of service with fewer halls.”
The hope, he said, is that, “future generations aren’t saddled with trying to maintain 24 stations that are in a terrible state of repair and are constantly costing us money.”
The city’s 24 fire/paramedic stations range in age from 17 years of age (Azilda) to 70 (Lively). The average age of the city’s career stations is 43, and the average age of volunteer stations is 50. The life cycle for stations is approximately 50 years.
Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.