Pitt Meadows paid-on-call firefighters were having their Christmas party Saturday when they were interrupted by three different emergency calls in just over an hour.
There was fast response and excellent turnout for the calls, because everyone was at the hall for the holiday celebration, said assistant fire chief Mike Larsson.
One call, at 11:45 a.m., was for a Hydro pole failure, with the transformer sending sparks down to the road. Firefighters closed a section of Dewdney Trunk Road for about an hour.
The second call was for a smell of gas, which it turned out had originated on the south side of the Fraser River. And there was a fire call at Kellie’s Bead Boutique at 12528 Harris Rd.
Larsson said the latter, at 1 p.m., turned out to not be a fire. There had been work done on the building’s HVAC system, which began to smoke, filling the building. The occupants of the business thought there must be a fire. Firefighters only had to ventilate the building, and Larsson said there was never a danger to the occupants.
There were 24 firefighters at the last call, which was an excellent response, said Larsson.
Firefighter response has been much discussed at city hall recently. The city is in the process of considering the hiring of two more full-time firefighters.
Some members of past councils have decried the hiring as unnecessary.
Former Mayor Don MacLean has said the city cannot afford firefighters at this time, because council was already looking at a 5.75 per cent tax increase, without including the new positions.
Longtime councillor Janis Elkerton said emergency medical response is better handled by paramedics, who have more training and can transport patients to hospital.
The Summary Report on Fire Services, authored by Dugal Smith and Associates in January of 2016, addressed the issue of friction between full-time firefighters and on-call members in Pitt Meadows.
Smith wrote one-third of the on-call firefighters want career positions, and would like the city to move to that staffing model. Some firefighters are performing on a self-imposed limited duty basis, he wrote, and used the example of “reduced emergency medical and/or night call responses.
“There are issues that need to be addressed to improve firefighter satisfaction and morale,” the report said.
“There are unique challenges in managing volunteer/paid-on-call firefighters and maintaining high attendance and training standards. Accordingly, there are opportunities to improve management practices.
“There appears to be growing militancy among the POC (paid-on-call) ranks. It may be that increasing militancy is coming from POC firefighters who want a career department and are seeking the many benefits enjoyed by the FSTs (fire service technicians) who have the advantages of a collective agreement and career positions,” said the report.
Smith’s report said the city does not need to move to career firefighter staffing. He said a move to 20 career firefighters would triple the city’s cost for fire protection.
Smith did not return phone calls for comment.
But Larsson said there is no problem with morale at the Pitt Meadows fire department, and the report he gave on Dec. 3, when he advocated for hiring two more full-time firefighters, was not intended to address dissension in the ranks.
“I don’t believe it to be an issue,” said Larsson, now co-acting chief since Don Jolley, who had been on leave, retired Friday.
“It [the recommendation for hiring] has nothing to do with morale, it’s a need,” Larsson added.
At the meeting, CAO Mark Roberts revealed that Jolley had requested two more career firefighters be hired, to cover low turnouts to emergency calls during the day.
All on-call firefighters must live in the city, but 85 per cent leave during work hours.
Roberts asked Jolley to show the need statistically.
Larrson reported from Jan. 1, 2017 from Monday to Friday between the hours of 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. there were 94 calls with three or fewer attendees, and there had occasionally been no on-call firefighters show up, requiring multiple re-pages.
Larsson did not offer a breakdown of what types of calls those were, but said the majority would be medical emergencies, vehicle accidents and alarms.
He noted there was an average of 14.7 personnel responding to calls for structure fires in 2017.
Larsson also cited high turnover of on-call firefighters – 16 leaving in the last two years.
That is higher than the attrition rate noted in the Smith report, which says the average is 15 per cent per year.
Also, the Pitt Meadows department does not attend 69 per cent of all Delta delta calls, which are among the most serious.
For comparison, the eight departments that Smith compared Pitt Meadow to responded to more such calls, and three went to all types of emergency medical calls.
After the presentation, council decided to send firefighters to more emergency calls – those for chest pains, and when ambulance is delayed by 10 minutes – which they had not previously attended.
If there was an issue with low morale or dissension at Pitt Meadows Fire and Rescue Service, related to the desire for a career model, it will be improved by the changes council has made, said Mayor Bill Dingwall, because all the firefighters at the hall have been consulted about council’s proposed changes, and they approve.
Two full-time firefighters are part of the picture, but so is an extra $30,000 in the budget so paid-on-call members can fill in for the career firefighters when they have time off.
This was not done in the past, said Dingwall.
That will give them extra pay, and valuable experience, added Dingwall.
He said the firefighters want to attend medical emergency calls, where they can be of assistance, and going to chest pains and ambulance delays is “a morale booster” for members.
Larsson agreed the firefighters want to go to more calls.
“They would do everything if they could,” he said, but added the issue is not to over-burden the crew.
However, both men said the morale of the department was not the impetus in hiring two new members.
Dingwall noted the Smith report did not assert any morale problems were widespread throughout the department.
Asked about the costs of going to a career model, which the report said will triple, Dingwall responded a total of six new firefighters are needed – two this year, and four more before the end of this council’s mandate, he said.
That will allow the department to have two career firefighters on duty 24/7, allowing for guaranteed medical response to medical calls.
“That’s something we need to strive for,” he said.
According to CAO Mark Roberts, the cost will be $28 per household, for the average single-family house in the city, and $15 per apartment, this year.
The cost, then, will be $56 more for the other four firefighters, when their hiring is approved, or $84 total.
As for a gap in service, paramedics beat firefighters to 51 per cent of calls.
Dingwall acknowledged that all calls are attended by paramedics or both.
“The use of volunteer/paid on-call firefighters has enabled the city to maintain its own decision making compared to unionized fire rescue services,” according to the Smith report.
“But the ambulance service, being regional in nature, there is no guarantee they are sitting in Pitt Meadows,” said the mayor, adding that ambulance is based on higher priority calls.
He added that the overdose crisis, caused by fentanyl, puts stress on emergency responders that was not there 10, or even five years ago.
B.C. Emergency Health Services has said it is added ambulance resources, though.
The provincial government committed to adding $91 million in new investment into the B.C. Ambulance Service every year for three years, with a focus on improving ambulance response times for life-threatening and time-critical 9-1-1 calls.
As of September, that meant 199 new paramedic positions and 45 additional ambulances across the province.
BCEHS communications officer Shannon Miller said a new clinical response model has changed the way ambulances are dispatched, with a goal to respond to the most life-threatening calls faster.
“Early data is showing better response times, partly because of this new system, but also because BCEHS has added more paramedics, dispatch staff, and ambulances,” she said. “We are getting to the most urgent calls faster, in part, because with this system, we are more accurately identifying the most life-threatening calls.
“Along with all the improvements being made, BCEHS continues to work closely with its first responder partners,” said Miller.
“First responders, including fire departments, play an important role in responding to urgent medical calls. Fire departments are experiencing lower demand for fire-related services, so they can often get on scene very quickly in critical incidents to provide basic first aid until paramedics arrive.”