Monday, March 20, 2023

Calgary councillors want to investigate improving the fire department’s response standards

Staffing shortages, combined with an unprecedented demand for service, has led to mounting strain on response times for Calgary’s fire department.

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Four city councillors are sponsoring a motion to investigate what measures are required to bring the City of Calgary’s fire department up to national standards.

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Staffing shortages, combined with an unprecedented demand for service, has led to mounting strain on response times for Calgary’s fire department.

Canadian national fire standards target a response time of six minutes for medical calls, and six minutes and 20 seconds for fires 90 per cent of the time. Calgary’s response time target is seven minutes.

Ward 2 Coun. Jennifer Wyness, who led the notice of motion, said the report would explore potential costs and timelines to improve fire service in the city.

“We ask firefighters to run into burning buildings, but then we’re not really listening to when they say they need more support,” Wyness said. “This is an ask for information and an ask to truly understand the situation in our fire department is having to work in right now.”

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The notice of motion directs administration to compile a report on resources needed to meet national firefighter staffing standards, along with an idea of ​​risks faced by Calgary firefighters and potential timelines. Administration would also compile a funding approach for the 2023-2026 budget.

Matt Osborne, spokesperson for the Calgary Firefighters Association, told council last November the department was “stretched to the breaking point,” and called for additional $10 million in next year’s budget to hire 56 firefighters.

“With our current staffing levels, it’s safer to live in Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto than Calgary,” Osborne said, pointing to data that suggest the city is not currently meeting the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) standard of four firefighters per rescue truck .

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“Calgary is the lowest staffed metropolitan fire department in Canada.”

Council approved the $10 million request last December, which added up to a full percentage point on the tax rate increase. However, fire chief Steve Dongworth previously told Postmedia the department would advocate for additional funding in the next four-year budget cycle to continue to address staffing concerns.

Along with staffing shortages, Calgary firefighters are responding to more overdose, medical and fire calls across the city. Overdose responses alone increased by 54 per cent between 2020 to 2021. Strains on the EMS system has led to firefighters being on calls for a longer amount of time as they wait for medical professionals to arrive.

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Wyness said she worries the city’s fire department will burn out if issues continue unaddressed, especially as the city begins work on plans to revitalize the downtown.

“This service that’s already close to burnout has to respond 24 hours a day,” she said. “This motion is really one of collaboration, of trying to get the fire department’s voice heard and an ability for council to listen.”

Along with Wyness, the notice of motion is sponsored by Ward 1 Coun. Sonya Sharp, Ward 3 Coun. Jasmine Mian, and Ward 13 Coun. Dan McLean.

There’s an understanding across council that the city’s challenges are building, Mian said, and the motion would provide the first step to addressing issues faced by the fire department.

“Public safety and ensuring that our emergency services are appropriately resourced is one of our most core responsibilities in my view,” Mian said. “What we’re looking for is a path forward. This is not a commitment of resources, but an estimate of what would it take to get us up to that NFPA standard.”

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As the city grows in population, Sharp said council needs to make sure there are enough firefighters to serve Calgarians.

“If we wait longer to look at increased funding, or making sure the fire department can hit their target response times, this could be a detriment to our city.”

The previous city council had a debate about response times in 2018, when some councillors wanted to stretch the city’s fire response time from seven to 10 minutes to allow for more suburban growth.

At that time, the council rejected relaxing the benchmark, while keeping the door open for developers to build in areas that fall outside the targeted response time.

The notice of motion will go to the executive committee for review on March 15. If approved, the council could consider the motion at the next council meeting on March 29.

—With files from Dylan Short and Meghan Potkins

[email protected]

Twitter: @BrittGervaisAB

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