Pitt Meadows Fire Chief Don Jolley asked the city to hire two more full-time firefighters, a packed council chambers heard at a special meeting Monday.
Jolley is on leave at his own request since early November, and was not at the meeting to speak to the staffing issues. He has asked that his leave be extended, and will remain off until Jan. 2.
City CAO Mark Roberts said Jolley approached him with a request to hire two more full-time firefighters at the start of the last budget talks. They would be needed to cover low turnouts to emergency calls by the paid-on-call members during the daytime, Roberts said.
He asked Jolley to ensure the low turnout was not “a blip.”
A 2016 fire service review had said the department was providing excellent service.
Roberts said they waited a year to see if the low turnouts to daytime emergency calls continued.
From Jan. 1, 2017 until the present time, there were 94 calls where three or fewer of the paid-on-call members responded between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m.
All of the firefighters live in the community, but approximately 85 per cent leave during the day for work.
“You could get many who come, you could get one. That’s how paid on call works,” said assistant chief Mike Larsson, who made the presentation at the meeting.
The average number of personnel who attended structure fires was 14.7, and Larsson said the industry standards state 12-16 firefighters are needed to efficiently operate at such a fire. Larsson also outlined the department has been plagued with high turnover, with about half of the paid-on-call members leaving over two years. Ten of the paid-on-call members are not yet fully trained, and have limited response capabilities, he said.
“This year already we’ve lost nine members. Last year, we lost seven,” he said.
Every Pitt Meadows councillor spoke in favour of hiring two more full-time firefighters in the coming year.
Mayor Bill Dingwall and others also spoke about the need for more career firefighters in the future, because adding four more will allow the fire hall to add another full shift.
Council also decided at the meeting to send firefighters to more emergency medical calls that it does not currently attend – to chest pains, and to calls when ambulances are delayed by 10 minutes. That level of service will increase on Jan. 1, 2019.
Based on 2017 calls, this would represent an additional 88 chest pain calls and approximately 50 ambulance delays.
Larsson explained emergency medical calls are classified from alpha to echo, with delta and echo calls being the most serious.
In 2017, there were 499 delta and echo calls and Pitt Meadows attended all 17 echo calls, and 148 of the delta calls, so 69 per cent of the delta calls were “filtered out.”
He noted that Pitt Meadows was compared with eight departments around B.C. during its 2015-16 fire service review, and all those attend more medical calls than Pitt Meadows. Three of them are of comparable size – Esquimalt, Oak Bay and White Rock – and attend all emergency medical calls, and have 21 or more career firefighters.
“In the 50 per cent of calls that we arrive on scene before B.C. Ambulance Service, we can assess the patient, provide critical response – CPR, defibrillation control deadly bleeding, give critical updates, administer treatments such as oxygen, naloxone and glucogel and monitor vicals until [ambulance] arrives,” he said.
He added they also comfort patients and family members and provide scene safety.
Larsson highlighted growth in the community in the past decade including the Golden Ears Business Park, Meadowtown Centre, Osprey Village, two 10-storey towers, the Westbrooke Retirement home and more development, and said the new Golden Ears Bridge and expansion of the Pitt River Bridge has seen traffic counts from 56,000 per day in 2008 to an estimated 80,000-plus in 2018. He also talked about CP Rail and the airport expansion.
Coun. Bob Meachen said the tremendous growth leapt out at him, and said council can’t keep costs down in an area that is a “vital service.”
Coun. Tracy Miyashita said there should have been more upgrades at the fire department already.
“Personally, I think this is not enough,” she said of the two firefighters, but called it “a good first step.”
Dingwall said the fire department should be expanded over time.
“This has be an incremental plan, over the years to come,” he said.
Members of the public spoke against or questioned the tax increase to pay for more firefighters, who would cost $28 annually per single-family household.
“You say we’re way behind, I don’t believe that,” said William Wild, noting the fire service has been considered excellent.
He said it would cost “upwards or $400 and $500 per year more to add full-time firefighters.
Dingwall corrected him, saying another four full-time fire fighters, an evening shift, would cost an additional $56 per year for the average household.
Dugal Smith, who authored the fire service review in 2015-2016, said he agreed that there is a need to keep up with growth in the community. But said the fire department is not lagging behind.
“I think you’ve kept up, and there’s time to move on and add staff to cover the gaps that you get from your model, but you’ve had a remarkable success as a city in terms of costs, and I think you are the envy of many other communities …” said Smith.
He noted other cities are scaling back their emergency medical response by firefighters, and there are limitations such as firefighters not being able to transport patients.
“It’s good to have a progression, but take care that you don’t go too fast, too far,” he added.
A person who identified himself as a pensioner said his fixed income is not increasing to keep place with city hall taxes.
“There is no increase of seven or eight per cent.”
Dingwall noted the city has the lowest tax rates in the region now, but added: “We can’t be the lowest without maintaining public safety.”
He said new developments, including the Golden Ears Business Park, North Lougheed area and Sutton Place will all contribute more tax dollars to the city
The additional cost will be $243,000 for the two firefighter salaries, plus approximately $30,000 to have paid-on-call members back-fill for the full-time members when they are on vacation, for 18 weeks.
It will also cost approximately $30,000 more for the paid-on-call members to attend the additional medical calls.
There are currently six full-time employees at the fire hall – the chief, two assistant chiefs, and administrative assistant and two fire safety technicians. The proposal is to add two more fire safety technicians. There are also 29 paid-on-call members are this time.
The fire department has an operating budget of $1.47 million per year, and the tax cost for fire protection is $149 per year for the average household.
Their performance stats listed 566 emergency call in 2017. The average year sees 550-600 calls, said Larsen.
There were 66 fire calls in 2017, including 16 grass/brush fires, 10 vehicle or lawnmower fires, eight stove top fires and five structure fires.
There were also 702 inspections, 99 education and prevention sessions and 250 training sessions provided to firefighters.