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.
“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.”
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