BACKGROUND: Unionized firefighters say the city’s fire department is understaffed and they’re concerned it won’t be able to maintain a safe and effective response to calls. Demand on resources is expected to only increase with an LNG-fueled economic boom.
“The system we have right now is not sustainable. We’ve already hit a critical portion in this system, and now with all these announcements, the needs for emergency services are going to keep increasing,” says Jeffrey Minhinnick, president of the local firefighters union.
The department has had eight full-time firefighters on staff since 2012, bolsterd by around 24 volunteer firefighters who also serve the greater Terrace area with firefighting and first responder service. Mutual aid agreements with the Thornhill Volunteer Fire Department and with Kitimat provide for those services outside of the city’s boundaries.. First responder service, for example, extends as far north as the Nass Valley.
Minhinnick says the increase in call volumes has become a “huge burden” given the number of firefighters available to respond.
“I know our members have told me that they’re feeling the effects of burn-out,” he says.
More recently, according to the department’s last quarterly report from April to June this year, emergency calls increased 8 per cent over 2017, and 68 per cent from the same time period in 2016.
Minhinnick says he is expecting the demand to continue to rise as developments for the LNG facility in Kitimat and the Skeena Industrial Development Park south of the airport move forward.
“We’re going to see a huge influx of traffic, hazards and population growth… and it’s just going to put even more of a tax on our system as it is. I’m really concerned with what that’s going to mean for our volunteers and for our members.”
The city’s 2018-2022 provisional budget allocates around $2.1 million annually to the fire department for a variety of services over the next five years. That’s an increase of $100,000 from 2017’s $2.01-million total, but there’s no additional funding for more staff.
Heather Avison, city chief administrative officer, says she has spoken with the firefighters union in the past about staffing concerns. She says the city would look at increasing the number of full-time positions when there is enough demand, and when there is enough tax revenue to pay for it.
Each position would mean a one per cent tax increase for the city’s residents, she says.
“Right now we don’t have much for additional tax revenue coming in…and anytime we’re looking at adding any position, we always have to look at what is the demand, and are our service levels suffering,” Avison says.
“Right now, I am not aware of the public having any concerns with the operations of our fire department.”
Minhinnick says the department is maintaining its level of service, but isn’t sure about its sustainability.
He’d like to see the number of career staff double to at least 16 firefighters, and ideally up to 20. The union’s ultimate goal is to ensure at least two fulltime firefighters are on for every shift.
“Increasing your service and your staffing is not free, but I think it’s time it becomes a priority because we’ve been lagging behind for so long, and we’re starting to see the effects of it,” Minhinnick says.
He says 30 to 40 per cent of the time there is only one firefighter to a truck, with one person guaranteed to respond off-duty. That is below the National Fire Prevention Association standard of four firefighters per vehicle.
In the past, he says members have turned down medical calls alongside ambulance services because of the lack of staff, or because they’re tied up with other emergencies. There’s also been a decline in the number of volunteer firefighters available for on-call shifts.
Avison says the city was not made aware of concerns about sustainability from the firefighter’s union, but if the situation becomes problematic, there are ways to address them.
“If it reaches a point where we’re not providing a level of service that we’re mandated to provide, then that’s a management decision to decide whether or not we need to increase our manning,” she says.
“As of now, we have made the decision that the need is not there yet.”
Mayor Carol Leclerc says the union’s concerns over fire department staffing also came as a surprise. She says firefighters should consult with city staff so the matter can be brought to council chambers.
“One of the most challenging things on council to do is to make sure that every single department reaches their full capacity with what we can provide with our taxpayer dollars,” Leclerc says.
”I think it’s really important that the firefighters go through the proper processing, and that all the departments are considered equally.”