After much council discussion and public input, city council elected to keep Port Alberni’s fire department staffing model status quo.
During a March 8 special meeting of council, city staff brought two options forward that would take money out of the city’s supplemental projects list to keep the fire department staffed at four members per shift. The first option would not hire a new firefighter to replace the one lost by attrition, but would add more overtime, at a cost of $51,725 out of the supplementary budget. The second option would hire a new firefighter and add more overtime, at a cost of $74,000.
“As part of the original budget submission for the five-year draft plan, I had to reduce the overtime,” Fire Chief Kelly Gilday explained. “And so that puts it up to what we’ve averaged over the last couple of years. It keeps everything status quo with what we’ve been spending.”
Most councillors seemed to like the second option, as it would ensure a four-man response team to any structure fire, but mayor Mike Ruttan warned that this cost would have implications down the road in terms of longer-term costs.
Gilday admitted that the first option was “a bit of a risk,” as it was staffing based on overtime.
Ruttan asked if the first option was done in any other fire department in British Columbia.
“In other fire departments they do staff up and they will pay overtime to staff up,” said Gilday. “When the department’s bigger, it’s easier to do that. When the department’s smaller, you run the risk of burning everybody out.”
“When I looked at the report that came to us in terms of the efficiency of our department, we were in the top 10 of 105 fire departments of a similar size across Canada,” said Ruttan.
Gilday agreed, “We’re in the top 10 because of our staffing. And in that report that came out, it says if our staffing changes by any amount, we come out of that top 10.”
Many other communities in British Columbia have already made the decision not to be in this position that “we’re currently in,” Ruttan summarized.
Councillor Jack McLeman agreed that the position is a tricky one.
“We’ve been through this debate now for quite a few years,” he said. “And it comes back to several things, always dollars, and dollars versus safety. I’d like to see us do something different. I’ve always supported a regionalized fire service. I know there’s going to come a time when it’s going to come to an end like it has in many other places, and I don’t want to see that happen here.”
Councillor Sharie Minions agreed that the conversation is far from over. “I think that if this is the level of fire service that we want, I think that we have to be realistic that we are going to continue to have this conversation every year, because the costs are increasing at a rate that at some point is probably going to become unaffordable to us.”
She did agree that this was the level of fire service that the community wants and needs.
“I’m confident that this is the level of service that we should have and that our community needs because of our mills and our socio-economic makeup,” she said.
She echoed McLeman in suggesting, “Maybe regional fire is what we need to be seriously talking about because at the end of the day, this is probably not going to be a service that is affordable to us forever.”
Ruttan warned that the decision to spend money on the fire department might result in service cuts elsewhere in the city.
In the end, the motion to hire a new firefighter and keep the staffing model at status quo was carried in a 6-1 vote, with only Ruttan voting against. A round of applause from the audience followed council’s decision.