'It's not sustainable': Calgary firefighters look at funding boost to help improve response times

To improve response times and bolster resources, Calgary's fire chief has brought three options forward for city council to consider funding later this year. Adam MacVicar has the details.

To improve response times and bolster resources, Calgary’s fire chief has brought three options forward for city council to consider funding later this year.

Fire chief Steve Dongworth told the city’s Executive Committee that record call volumes, several years of budget cuts and the expansion of the city have all contributed to longer response times.

“It’s not sustainable,” Dongworth said. “The critical number is how long it takes to assemble the right number of firefighters and trucks at a serious and escalating fire.”

The fire department is currently responding to fire calls within seven minutes and 40 seconds, 90 per cent of the time; which is slower than both its own seven-minute response time target and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards.

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The first funding option would be to increase staffing levels from two to four firefighters on existing units, with a price-tag of $29.3 million yearly, plus $9 million in capital funding.

Second, the conversion of six rescue fire trucks into aerial units, and the addition of four new aerial units to the fleet at a cost of $14.8 million annually, and $6 million in capital costs.

The third option suggests building two new fire stations with capital costs of $36 million, and an annual cost of $7.6 million.

Combined, it’s estimated to cost $52 million in operating funding, $51 million in capital funds and the addition of 315 firefighters.

A city report anticipated the implementation of all three options would contribute to a one-minute 15-second improvement in response times for what is called an “effective response force,” or the time it takes to assemble 12 firefighters at the scene of a fire.

“It’s when we’ve done all of that, we’d see a 75-second improvement,” Dongworth said. “Just by virtue of hiring the firefighters, of ordering the equipment, of finding the sites for the stations; this would take four years or more.”

Dongworth said the fire department would be bringing forward a four-year budget request that includes all three options later this year.

“Your Calgary firefighters have been at the breaking point for several years now,” Calgary Firefighters Association president Codey McIntyre said.

“It is now putting the citizens of Calgary at risk, and your firefighters at risk.”

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At Wednesday’s meeting, several councillors asked how much of the fire department’s increased call volume was to respond to medical calls.

Dongworth said half of the fire department’s calls are “critical medical interventions” and there has been between a 30 and 40 per cent increase in medical calls in the first five months of this year compared to 2021.

Ward 14 Coun. Peter Demong said the situation of firefighters responding to medical calls could be an example of “provincial downloading.”

“We as a city get put on the burner to say if EMS isn’t doing their job as well as they should be, it means the fire department has to take up some of their slack,” Demong told the committee. “The province is having a huge impact on our budget by not financing their departments properly.”

Following the meeting, mayor Jyoti Gondek said she would ensure the city is advocating to the provincial government for a share of its recently reported $3.9 billion surplus to help fund local emergency services.

“Considering we’re picking up the pieces for medical calls right now, and have a budget request coming from our fire department, that is also intended to cover medical calls,” Gondek said. “I think we need to have some pretty real conversations as provincial and municipal partners.”

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Originally, city council had asked administration to look into how much it would cost to bolster the fire department’s staffing and resources to meet NFPA benchmarks.

NFPA standards aren’t a regulatory standard, but a fire industry benchmark that includes staffing standards and response time targets of six minutes and 20 seconds for fires.

City administration determined it is “not feasible as a response standard for Calgary” because it would require an increase to the annual fire department operating budget by $214.5 million — nearly double its current budget.

A city report also determined it would take between 15 and 20 years to fully implement NFPA 1710 benchmarks.

Both city administration and Dongworth suggested city council use those benchmarks as an “aspirational guiding document.”

City council will discuss the proposed options from the fire department at a meeting scheduled in late July but will make its funding decisions when it crafts the next four-year budget during deliberations in November.

Dongworth told reporters the fire department is hoping council will fund “the full suite of options,” in an effort to close the gap.

“What you’re seeing playing out in council chambers sounds different, because we have more people who are willing to talk about the fact that we may need to fund services that we’ve previously been cutting,” Gondek said.

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