Abbotsford’s firefighters’ union says the city should make good on longstanding plans to fully staff a hall to improve response times to calls in the Sandy Hill, Clayburn and Auguston areas.
Currently, the fire department’s Hall 7 near Abbotsford Christian School is reliant on paid on-call firefighters who have other jobs and, when dispatched to a call, must first drive to their hall to suit up. And longer response times in the area, due in part to heavier traffic, has prompted more callers to ask why firefighters didn’t arrive sooner, the union says.
“We just can’t get there in a timely fashion anymore,” Tom Dodd, the union’s vice-president, said Monday.
The city currently has four fully staffed halls; the closest to the Sandy Hill/Clayburn area are located downtown and near the Highway 1 Whatcom Road exit.
Fire Chief Don Beer says full-time staff are coming for the area but the recent focus has been on improving core staffing in existing halls and dealing with the surge in medical calls attributed, in part, to the opioid overdose crisis.
More than a decade ago, the city planned to begin staffing Hall 7 with full-time career members. But those plans were soon redrawn, with the Clayburn-bound firefighters redirected to a new hall in the Townline Hill area, where firefighters were dealing with a high number of emergency calls.
In 2010, the city’s fire master plan noted that: “The need to staff Fire Hall 7 with Career fire fighters to meet response time targets for this urban area remains outstanding … With Fire Hall 7 (Clayburn) and a new Fire Hall 8 (Townline) in place and both staffed with career fire fighters, the City’s urban areas would be largely covered within proposed response time targets.”
Today, the Clayburn hall remains unstaffed with career firefighters.
Last year, Abbotsford council adopted a new master plan that said the area should get a hall with full-time staff “beginning in 2023 or later, depending on the pace of development in the area.”
The union says the city should move quicker. After this year’s budget showed no funding for Hall 7 full-time firefighters, the union posted an article on its website arguing that the current response times in the area compromise public safety and should be addressed sooner.
The union said: “The difference between an engine arriving in 4-5 minutes (with Hall 7 staffed with a career engine) and a truck arriving in 8-9 minutes (current response capability) in that area is huge! You and your family’s safety depends on help arriving in a timely manner and with the current staffing levels, that can’t be done.”
Union president Wade Wood told The News on Monday that the union isn’t trying to pick a fight and that members had been sympathetic to the city’s need to get its books in order.
But now that the city is on solid financial footing – Coun. Sandy Blue said at Monday’s meeting that it may be in its best fiscal shape ever – the union says fire coverage should be boosted. Dodd and Wood say they hope to start a public discussion about fire coverage and the service received by residents.
Hiring enough firefighters to fully staff the hall won’t be cheap. Staffing Hall 7 around the clock with four members would require the city to hire more than 20 firefighters. That would likely add millions of dollars in annual expenses to the city budget, a cost that would be passed onto taxpayers. A one per cent tax increase brings in about $1.4 million of revenue.
Dodd and Wood acknowledged the cost, but said the area’s residents deserve better fire coverage, even if it costs more. The department has one of the largest coverage regions in the province, they note, but residents pays less per capita for fire and rescue coverage than many neighbours, including the Township of Langley.
“We’re asking now, if the citizens want a better service or the service we believe they deserve, it’s going to cost a little money,” Wood said. “We’re not looking to get into a disrespectful back and forth with council. We’re saying we’re getting [these comments], we need you to listen, we need you to hear the public.”
Beer said council has been supportive in recent years, pointing to budget increases to allow for the hiring of eight new firefighters this year and last.
“They recognize that as we grow, we’re going to have to grow our fire department,” he said.
Medical calls now make up half of all responses for the department. After hiring six firefighters to ensure full coverage and cover for members on leave last year, council has given the department money to hire the first two members for a new medical unit. That unit will be expanded in the years to come.
Beer said the opioid overdose epidemic wasn’t foreseeable in 2010, when the plans were made to boost staffing at Hall 7.
“We built a roadmap to get somewhere, but when there’s a hole in the middle of the road, you have to veer around it,” he said.
He said that by 2023, Hall 7 should have two career staff to be supported by on-call members.
“We’re looking at being efficient with how we’re deploying our staff and what we’re deploying them on,” he said.