Pitt Meadows should employ two more full-time firefighters, Coun. Bill Dingwall said in a recent letter to his council colleagues.
The city currently has five full-time fire personnel: a chief, two assistant chiefs and two safety technicians. There are also approximately 25 paid on-call firefighters.
Dingwall said Pitt Meadows is one of the last fire departments in the Lower Mainland that is primarily paid on-call, and with just two first responders on duty, the service lags behind Maple Ridge, which is able to have full-time firefighters attend a wide range of medical emergencies.
In Pitt Meadows, firefighters attend only the most serious medical calls.
“Clearly, we don’t have enough,” said Dingwall, a former RCMP officer.
“This is about safety, and it’s about our citizens.”
He said council voted to stay with the present model of fire protection and emergency services, but response times could be cut dramatically with more staff.
Dingwall noted that 50 per cent of the time fire and police arrive ahead of an ambulance in Pitt Meadows, according to a consultant’s report, and that seconds and minutes can increase survivability of someone in need of medical assistance.
With more full-time fire responders, the percentage would rise in favour of the patient, he said.
Dugal Smith and Associates conducted a report for the city, reviewing the fire and rescue services model, which included four months of interviews as well as document, process and statistical reviews.
It found that the average overall response time for all of rural and urban areas is eight minutes, which is considered an excellent standard for a volunteer or a paid on-call department covering such a large community.
Average response time in the rural area is just over 10 minutes, and the report said rural residents accept the longer response as a consequence of living there.
Average response time in the city’s core area is 7:30. On average, 10 firefighters turn out for a call.
The department responds to 500 incidents per year on average. The breakdown for the 488 calls in 2014 was: 44 fire related, 132 medical emergencies, 114 vehicle crashes, 91 responses to alarms and 107 other.
When the Pitt Meadows composite service delivery model, which is composed of primarily paid on-call volunteer team supplemented by a small career staff, was compared with similar municipalities in B.C., Pitt Meadows scored well on response time, training, apparatus and equipment, inspection programs, service costs per capita, and the reduction of critical incidents, according to the city.
Seven comparator jurisdictions were used in the study, including White Rock, Oak Bay, Central Saanich, Colwood, Courtenay, Comox, Sooke, and Esquimalt. These comparators utilize either largely career staff or similar composite models to Pitt Meadows.
The budget for Pitt Meadows’ system is $1.3 million, serving a population of 18,000.
The Maple Ridge fire department has 53 full-time firefighters, between 60-65 paid on-call and a budget of $10.26 million. It serves a population of 76,000.
Based on the study, in January council decided to continue to support the paid on-call system.
Dingwall said he can’t join his fellow councillors in celebrating the low cost of fire protection in Pitt Meadows.
“It’s very frustrating for me – I spent my whole career dealing with first responders and public safety.”
Dingwall recently stated his position in writing to council and Pitt Meadows fire chief Don Jolley, who advised council of a new provincial initiative to issue naloxone to firefighters, so they can give a potentially live-saving injections to drug overdose patients.
Dingwall said the decision highlights the increasing reliance on firefighters in medical emergencies around the province.
“There is also significant and recent coverage surrounding the shortage of ambulance services in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows (two for the whole area) and we owe it to our citizens, families and ourselves (touch wood) that it does not happen to someone close to us or in our community, and to do what we reasonably can towards increased public safety and health,” wrote Dingwall.
Pitt Meadows Mayor John Becker said Dingwall’s comments are an opinion, but council made its decision based on a study.
“We spent over $60,000 for a very comprehensive and very well done fire services review,” added Becker.
He noted that for every $168,000 in new spending, the city must raise taxes one per cent, so Dingwall’s proposal is not inexpensive – it would result in a tax increase of about 1.5 per cent, he estimated.
Becker said that would be a non-starter for council.
The provincial government is responsible for emergency response in medical emergencies, he said.
“The provision of ambulance services is something the province deals with.”
He noted Delta Mayor Lois Jackson promoted the training of city firefighters in first responder medical care because her city had full-time firefighters who were not busy.
“That’s not the situation here,” said Becker.
Jolley said emergency service providers would always like more resources, but he is confident that Pitt Meadows has an effective system.
He said firefighters in Pitt Meadows respond to serious calls, including cardiac arrest, drownings, allergic reactions and major trauma.
“And, if we can make a difference to a patient with a narcotic overdose, that’s a good thing,” added Jolley.
He said the fire services review found that no increase in staffing is required.