Fire department budget hits $10 million

Budget increase to hire three more full-time staff in Maple Ridge

A fire this September levelled several homes under construction in Silver Valley.

A fire this September levelled several homes under construction in Silver Valley.

The Maple Ridge fire department is ratcheting up its spending as it makes the final push to a complete full-time, part-time force.

According to an update provided to council Monday, the department’s operating budget will hit $10.5 million next year, up from $9.9 million from this year.

Salary costs account for part of that jump, to $7.6 million next year from $7.2 million this year – a jump of six per cent.

The increases worried Coun. Corisa Bell, who wanted more information about the hikes.

“Just because it’s being rolled out doesn’t mean it can’t be amended, or it can’t be rolled out in a longer period of time.” All costs must be looked at, she added.

“We’re in a different time right now.”

Bell said she wasn’t aware if the higher salary costs resulted from increases given to department staff or because of the hiring of additional firefighters.

“So that will be one of my questions on Monday.”

But according to Fire Chief Peter Grootendorst, the majority of the increase in fire department salary costs is to pay for new staff. The department has the OK to hire three new full-time firefighters next year, bringing the complement of career firefighters, or full-timers, to 51.

When three more are hired the year after, the department will have reached its fire department master plan goal of 54 full-timers, bolstered by about 60 to 65 part-time, paid-on-call firefighters.

Expanding the department has been paid for through a special levy on property taxes, which has already started to reduce, as hires are made.

In addition to completion of the plan, 2013 will also see the start of construction of Fire Hall No. 4, on 112th Avenue, just west of 240th Street.

That’s a $6-million project that already has funding in place and will allow quicker response for fire crews as they respond to calls in the eastern part of the district.

Grootendorst told council that response times for the fire department has now reached 80 per cent, meaning firefighters get to a call within seven minutes of the alarm, 80 per cent of the time.

In 2003, prior to moving to full-time/part-time force, when the department relied mainly on paid on-call firefighters, the ratio was only 30 per cent.

Coun. Cheryl Ashlie asked if there was a way of measuring the benefits of a combined force. That should be apparent in fewer fires and lower fire-fighting costs, Grootendorst said.

This past year, though, was a bad one. There was a major construction fire, destroying at least four homes in Silver Valley, in September, as well a major mill fire Whonnock in August.

Fire department figures show that Maple Ridge is third lowest in the region in terms of cost per capita.

Maple Ridge Fire Department rings in at $128 versus $61 for Pitt Meadows, which has only a paid-on-call staff.

The New Westminster fire department has the highest cost per capita at $235.

When it comes to senior staffing, the department has four assistant chiefs and two fire chiefs. That number has remained constant since 2000, when the number of chief officers rose from five to six, Grootendorst explained.

Other departments have another level of support, leading to more fire administrators in a department, he pointed out.

Firefighters still spend most of their emergency calls fighting fires, followed by, in descending order: medical emergencies, car crashes, alarms, explosions, burning complaints and calls about power lines falling down.

Unlike some fire departments, which follow the “no call too small” policy, Maple Ridge only responds to life-threatening medical calls or if ambulances can’t show up.

A tougher task the fire department will have to face in the future are possible increased frequency of floods, landslides or forest fires, linked to climate change.

“It’s a big one,” Grootendorst said.