A collision on Ash Street drew paramedics and firefighters Thursday morning. Fires constitute only a fraction of calls that local firefighters respond to. Abbotsford News file photo

More rescues, less flames: Future of Abbotsford firefighting up for discussion

Mayor says talks with province needed, councillors suggest city may need more full-time firefighters

The Abbotsford Fire and Rescue Department is busier than ever, prompting questions about whether it needs more resources – or much more help from provincially funded ambulance service.

Firefighters now spend most their time on calls that have nothing to do with flames or smoke. The department is on pace to handle 10,000 calls this year, a record that would amount to a 37 per cent increase from 2015. More than half of those are medical calls. Car crashes and alarms amount to another quarter. Less than five per cent of incidents are actual fires.

Those figures prompted Mayor Henry Braun to ask if switching the name of the department to the Abbotsford Rescue and Fire Service (instead of Fire and Rescue) to emphasize its current work. Braun and Coun. Bruce Banman also suggested that in having its firefighters respond to such large numbers of medical calls, the city may be increasingly taking on a burden traditionally financed by the provincial government, which funds the BC Ambulance Service.

“I wonder if the day has come where we have to have a high-level meeting with the BC Ambulance Service,” Braun said during recent budget meetings.

Coun. Dave Loewen had earlier suggested that the increasing number of calls could demand a shift in the department’s operating structure.

The department currently uses a mixed model, with paid on-call firefighters supplementing and providing support for a core group of full-time career firefighters.

The department plans to hire four more full-time firefighters in 2020, after recruiting two in 2019. The department’s budget makes up about nine per cent of all city operating spending, and the new firefighters will cost $340,000 annually.

Keeping its paid on-call firefighters from being poached by other cities is an increasing challenge, AFR Chief Don Beer told council. He said many such firefighters sign up to gain real-world experience that can then help them secure a full-time career gig.

RELATED: High marks for Abbotsford’s fire department in first survey

RELATED: Sandy Hill area needs full-time firefighters, union says

“Abbotsford Fire Rescue Service paid on-call firefighters are well-trained and sought-after by other career departments,” Beer said.

Just 30 per cent are satisfied with long-term on-call work, he said.

Those retention issues – and the fact that such firefighters work other jobs – mean that when paid on-call firefighters are called into action, it can take time to assemble a full crew. Sometimes, it has taken more than half-an-hour to muster a full engine, Beer said.

“With the sheer volume of incidents … it also means calling upon those POCs on a more frequent basis and putting more pressure on them as well.”

Increasingly, those firefighters don’t end up seeing any action; when all career units are busy, they are called upon to provide “core coverage,” essentially serving as back-up lest another call come in.

Those issues led Loewen to ask whether Beer needed more resources than he was asking for.

“I have confidence in you, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “But sometimes I wonder: Are you pushing hard enough or are we suddenly going to get surprised in some way? Are we understaffed or under-resourced?”

Beer said there are challenges and a need to increase staffing, although it will be up to the city and council to determine just how fast that needs to happen.

“Are they quick enough? I’m not sure if they are or not. I think time will definitely tell here, and I’ve been signaling to council through these opportunities how we are sitting with our paid on-call system.”

He noted that some other municipalities with mixed systems operate with higher proportions of career firefighters to paid on-call crews.

Coun. Patricia Ross said she believes “the day is going to come that we will have to move to complete full-time [firefighters]” and asked how long it would take to phase-in such a change.

“It only makes sense to phase it in, but the costs and the amounts are not insignificant,” Beer replied. Such a transition would take up to a decade, and the city would need to decide whether the costs were “palatable.”

In the meantime, he noted that more career firefighters, both in four-person units and two-person squads focused on providing support and responding to medical calls, are “on the horizon.”

Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email:
tolsen@abbynews.com


@ty_olsen
Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

‘Each step is a prayer’: Ojibwe man will walk from Hope to Vancouver Island for Indigenous healing, reconciliation

James Taylor departs Sept. 20, returns to Saanich in five days for sacred fire

COLUMN: We don’t need an election. But it’s 2020, so we’ll probably get one anyways.

There are only selfish reasons for the NDP to trigger an election this fall

Plea deal results in guilty plea in fatal Langley shooting in 2017

First degree murder charge amended to conspiracy to commit murder

Say ‘Hi’ to the mountains (and rain): The smoke is gone from the Fraser Valley, for now

Saturday’s Fraser Valley air quality forecast at ‘moderate risk,’ but morning showers leave skies clear

Abbotsford considers hiking development fees for new houses – and schools and churches

City considers hiking development cost charges on new institutional and agriculture buildings

3 new deaths due to COVID-19 in B.C., 139 new cases

B.C. confirms 40 ‘historic cases,’ as well

Ferry riders say lower fares are what’s most needed to improve service

Provincial government announces findings of public engagement process

Air quality advisory ends for the Lower Mainland

It had been in effect since Sept. 8

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies at 87

The court’s second female justice, died Friday at her home in Washington

Emaciated grizzly found dead on central B.C. coast as low salmon count sparks concern

Grizzly was found on Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw territory in Smith Inlet, 60K north of Port Hardy

VIDEO: B.C. to launch mouth-rinse COVID-19 test for kids

Test involves swishing and gargling saline in mouth and no deep-nasal swab

Young Canadians have curtailed vaping during pandemic, survey finds

The survey funded by Heart & Stroke also found the decrease in vaping frequency is most notable in British Columbia and Ontario

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

B.C. teachers file Labour Relations Board application over COVID-19 classroom concerns

The application comes as B.C.’s second week of the new school year comes to a close

Most Read