Two new full-time fire safety technicians will be hired in Pitt Meadows, as soon as they can be recruited.
In addition to the $243,000 cost for those two positions, council also approved the $30,000 expense to have paid-on-call firefighters fill in for those career firefighters when they are on holidays, which has not been the practice in the past.
Pitt Meadows council held budget discussions on Monday and Wednesday, with a combined seven hours of presentations from city departments.
Chief administrative officer Mark Roberts told council the total cost for the upgraded fire service will likely fit inside the 5.75 per cent tax increase recommended by senior staff.
The 2019 increase equates to $175 more for the average single-family property, and includes:
• contracted services and provincial legislation 3.09 per cent;
• city department services 1.18 per cent;
• asset replacement at 1.48 per cent.
The increase includes the costs mentioned above, as well as an additional $30,000 budgeted to have firefighters attend more medical emergencies – chest pains and ambulance delays of 10 minutes or longer.
Roberts said the first tax increase presented to council was a “very conservative estimate,” but the most recent information from B.C. Assessment shows new taxation from growth will be stronger than first thought.
“Part, and likely all, of the $303,000 we can manage within the 5.75, but we won’t be able to confirm that,” he added.
“That will make it a little bit more palatable for council to approve the FST positions, knowing that likelihood is there.”
The hiring will bring fire hall staffing from six, including an administrative assistant, to eight, with four being fire safety technicians.
“We see the importance to council to get this in place, so we will definitely expedite that process.”
Assistant fire chief Brad Perrie, who made the budget presentation to council, noted that he will retire in 20 months, and combined with the recent retirement of fire chief Don Jolley, city hall will need to do succession planning for the fire department.
Perrie also warned council that new costs may be on the horizon for communications, as Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows have not yet joined the majority of Lower Mainland cities in using the E-Comm Radio system. He noted that will cost $23,000, plus an additional $182,000 per year in operating costs.
He said the existing radio system easily accessed by public scanning equipment can’t communicate with ambulance or police, and coverage is limited in certain areas of the city.
Roberts said Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows partner in a communications system, and there is still some question whether Maple Ridge will continue in it, so he did not want to include any changes in the 2019 budget.
Over the next three years, the city will build a new fire hall at a budgeted cost of $9.6 million, which will come from city reserves.
The firefighter hiring motion passed with no further discussion by councillors, who voiced their approval at a public information session on Dec. 3, and with no questions from the public.
However, the hirings do have critics.
Dugal Smith, a consultant who wrote a report for the city about fire services in 2016, said hiring more full-time firefighters may come with hidden costs.
He noted career firefighters in Pitt Meadows have attended fire calls while they are not on shift, joining the paid-on-call responders on a volunteer basis. However, as the fire department adds more career firefighters, Smith predicts they will want to be paid overtime if they go to calls when they are not on duty. He expects their union will insist on it.
Smith notes that the two new firefighters being hired to provide weekday, daytime coverage is a solution to lower turnouts by paid-on-call members at this time.
However, Smith cautioned against adding firefighters to cover medical emergencies, noting the service they provide is limited because they cannot transport patients, cannot medicate them and are “very limited by the certification and training.”
What’s more, he noted B.C. Ambulance has added resources and is changing the way emergency medical calls are triaged, so some municipalities that have taken a “no call too small” policy for emergency medical response are considering scaling back on this service.
He said some cities have firefighters responding to very high call volumes and “they’re kicking themselves.
“It’s not a good idea to justify adding more staff on medical calls,” he said, and added that he admired former chief Don Jolley for “holding the line and running a paid-on-call department with a few career firefighters.”
He said Pitt Meadows had a very affordable model compared to most, and “going to careers is hugely expensive.”
The operating budget for the fire department in Pitt Meadows prior to the new hires was pegged at 6.6 per cent of the city budget, for $1.387 million.
In his report, Smith estimated a move to 20 career firefighters would triple the city’s cost for fire protection.