Pitt Meadows city council has approved the hiring of four new full-time firefighters over the next two city budgets.
Two of the Fire Safety Technicians (FSTs) will be hired on April 1, 2021 and the other two on Oct. 2 of 2021. The result will be a 0.93 per cent tax increase in 2021 and 2022.
That will be six career firefighters added over three years under the new council.
“We’ve jumped forward in terms of public safety, in a big way,” said Mayor Bill Dingwall, adding the new additions will give the department better options for coverage.
There were long discussions about the new additions during business planning meetings on Monday and Tuesday.
“Council duked it out a bit,” is how Dingwall characterized it, although most of the discussion was about when the firefighters should be hired.
Councillors generally agreed they are needed.
“In no other department do we have volunteers who are really working in the department,” noted Coun. Tracy Miyashita. “Our works yard we have full-time staff, and our parks and rec, our library, we don’t run policing with auxiliary here. But this is one are where we are always debating the need for full-time staff, which is crazy to me, to think this way.”
She said it is an issue of safety.
“We’re putting your crew at risk by under-funding this department,” she told fire chief Mike Larsson. “I’m not personally willing to put a price on the lives of our firefighters.”
Coun. Nicole MacDonald agreed fire protection is under funded as a percentage of the city budget, compared with neighbouring communities.
“Our POC model, while it has served us well, is outdated. We have a huge attrition rate. We saw between $500,000 and $650,000 dollars go out the door in experience and training over the past two years.”
There are eight full-time positions at the fire hall: The chief, two deputy chiefs, an administrative assistant and four FSTs. There are also 36 paid-on-call firefighters.
Dingwall said Larsson offered a fire service review that exposed gaps in service levels. A significant problem, he noted, is the city can’t retain its paid on-call firefighters. Once they are fully trained, they are able to apply for full-time positions in cities.
“They’re getting picked off by other departments,” said Dingwall.
The lack of retention has created issues on the ground, like not having enough personnel who are qualified to drive the fire trucks, and generally low experience levels. It was noted that only only five POCs are qualified to can drive all of the department’s apparatus. There is also low attendance at daytime calls.
Staff will present council with its final budget numbers on Dec. 7.