Pitt Meadows Coun. Janis Elkerton is skeptical of the justification being used to hire more full-time firefighters. Former Pitt Meadows councillor Janis Elkerton is skeptical of the justification being used to hire more full-time firefighters. (files)

Former Pitt councillor questions plan to hire firefighters

Facts have changed the conversation: mayor

Former Pitt Meadows councillor Janis Elkerton is critical of plans to hire more full-time firefighters, saying there is no need to have them attend more medical emergencies than they have been.

“I am very disturbed that they are going to be going to more [medical] calls,” said Elkerton, a former nurse. “They can’t transport to hospital, and they are not trained to the same level as paramedics.”

Firefighters receive approximately 40 hours of emergency medical training, while entry-level paramedics take a one-year course.

Elkerton, who was not re-elected this past fall, said she would like to hear from Fire Chief Don Jolley about the proposal to hire two more career firefighters. She was aware that he wanted to hire at least one more full-time firefighter.

“I do question why Don Jolley is off. The new council has started, and he is off,” said Elkerton.

Councillors and assistant fire chiefs are not aware of the reason for Jolley’s leave of absence, which has now been extended into January and will be almost two months.

City CAO Mark Roberts has said he can not speak to the reason for an employee’s leave due to privacy rights.

At Monday night’s special meeting regarding the fire department, Roberts reported Jolley had requested two new career firefighters as part of the last budget discussion.

Elkerton said the new ambulance rest-and-ready station is a new development, with the new facility located next to city hall, and council should wait and see what impact it has on response times for medical emergencies.

If there is a need for improved medical emergency response, she added, council can lobby the province.

B.C. Emergency Health Services has already added 119 full- and part-time paramedic positions and 45 new ambulances across the province since 2017.

Shannon Miller, with BCEHS, said early data shows response times to life-threatening calls are improving.

Elkerton also questions the $28 annual cost per single-family home to pay for two more full-time firefighters. She believes the cost is low compared with earlier numbers.

And the costs will be compounded if four more firefighters are added, she said, to comprise a second shift.

“This is empire building.”

Roberts said after the meeting that he is confident that the $28 per year is correct.

The key figures are that a one per cent tax increase generates an estimated $200,000 for the city, and cost of that one per cent increase to the owner of the average single-family home is approximately $19 per year. So the $303,000 cost will represent a tax increase of 1.5 per cent, and approximately $28 per year to the average single-family home.

For Mayor Bill Dingwall, a retired RCMP officer, the issue is public safety.

All of the paid-on-call members live in the city, but 85 per cent leave for work elsewhere in the Lower Mainland.

Asst. Chief Mike Larsson said that“occasionally we have had zero [paid-on-call members] respond, requiring multiple re-pages. During the day, chiefs have had to jump on trucks to have a driver or enough manpower to respond.”

Dingwall said the scheduling plan, after council hires two more career firefighters, will be to staff two on 11-hour shifts from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., on a four-on, four-off schedule, with four firefighters in the rotation.

The full-time members are fully trained, would likely come from the paid-on-call membership, and would be able to drive trucks and respond faster. Two can go to emergency medical calls, and four must be on the truck to respond to a fire call or car accident – so as soon as two paid-on-call members arrived at the hall, a fire truck could roll, he said.

Currently, there are two career firefighters – called fire safety technicians, working Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. There is also a chief and two assistant chiefs.

Dingwall said there are now 40 hours per week with two career firefighters on duty, and that will increase to 77 hours per week.

He also said the stat that the fire department had 16 members leave in the past two years is also a jarring statistic, and that there is a cost to be in a constant hiring/training mode.

Now, over 42 per cent of the department has less than three years of service, mostly because they keep getting hired by neighbouring fire departments offering full-time positions.

He added the plan is to have paid-on-call members fill in for vacation time when the career firefighters are away to give them experience, and make them better firefighters. That will cost $30,000.

Council has already approved having firefighters respond to calls for chest pains and ambulance delays of 10 minutes or more, costing $30,000.

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