Requests for firefighter funding must be considered, says mayor

The fire department continues to see an increase in demand for service

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After years of cuts and scraps, the Calgary Fire Department could benefit from a significant budget increase this fall, following a candid discussion at a Calgary council meeting on Wednesday.

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Fire Chief Steve Dongworth appeared before the council’s executive committee to report on the risks his department faces and plans for mitigation.

The report included three options: increase manpower, buy more aerial trucks and add fire stations.

But Mayor Jyoti Gondek saw a problem in the way the options were presented.

“What troubles me about these options is that they are not options,” the mayor said. “Those are three things we need to do.”

Total capital costs for the three options were $51 million, with ongoing operating costs of an additional $51.7 million per year. It would allow the hiring of 315 new firefighters, the addition of four new and six converted aerial devices and the construction of two more fire stations.

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Dongworth said even hiring is a challenge, as the city can only train 90 to 100 new hires a year. The chef suggested it could be sped up a bit, and they considered streamlining the training in case more funding comes in.

The fire department continues to see an increase in demand for service. Dongworth said last year service calls were up 16% from 2020, and this year the number appears to be closer to 20%.

Dongworth told the council that approving all three options would allow the fire department to slash its response time by 75 seconds.

The options presented would still not allow the fire department to meet NFPA 1710 standards, which Calgary has not met for years. Rather, the city has its own landmarks which were developed in 2008.

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The chief spoke about the challenges his department is facing, including new homes being built much closer together from materials that burn faster.

FILE PHOTO: The Calgary Fire Department responds to a fire at 84 Woodfield Crescent SW Friday April 15, 2022. There were no injuries to the fire. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

Another major problem facing his crew, according to Dongworth, is the increase in medical calls, especially for opioid overdoses.

Although the EMS system is responsible for responding to medical calls, members of the fire department are also present and are often the first on the scene.

Dongworth said that as a percentage of total call volume, medical calls increased by just over 50%.

District 14 Com. Peter Demong posed a hypothetical question to the Chief.

“If you stopped answering medical calls and actually let EMS and AHS do their job, what impact would that have on your service levels answering us?” He asked.

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“Obviously that would help us,” Dongworth replied. “I would say that would be a tragedy for the citizens of Calgary.

The chief noted that while the fire department receives no financial compensation from the province for the medical work it performs at the scene, the province has provided the department with free medical supplies and medical training.

Speaking after the meeting, Dongworth told reporters he thought the advisers’ responses were encouraging.

“Over the past few years, we’ve been asked to be very frugal with our budget and actually reduce parts of our budget. So all of these things added up,” he said.

Dongworth said technically the fire department’s budget had increased slightly, but not enough to meet the increasing demands of a growing city.

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Gondek said she spent a lot of time in her past four years as a councilor trying to raise funds for the fire department and fighting across-the-board cuts. She said this new council seems to see fire services as a priority.

The mayor said with news of a $3.9 billion provincial surplus, there will have to be “pretty real” conversations with the province.

“I will make sure we advocate for a share of that $3.9 billion,” Gondek said. “Especially considering that we’re picking up parts for medical calls right now, and we have a budget request from our fire department that’s also to cover medical calls.”

Wednesday’s discussion was a report for the information of the board. The final decision on funding will not be made until budget talks scheduled for November.

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Twitter: @brodie_thomas

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