Chilliwack needs more firefighters to mount a truly effective response, says the Chilliwack Professional Fire Fighters Association.
Mayor Sharon Gaetz says they’re not in a position to add personnel because of tight budgets and recessionary impacts.
The union is calling on the City of Chilliwack to “rekindle” the plan to add more staff.
“Recent fires have underscored the need for faster and more effective response capabilities,” said Keith Corbett, President of the Chilliwack Professional firefighters Association.
The Promontory townhouse fire last week was an example cited where only two firefighters were on duty initially.
“Only two or three firefighters as initial responders are not enough to perform interior search and rescue in a burning structure.”
B.C. safety standards require four firefighters on-scene before they can enter a burning structure.
A previous plan to add four professional firefighters a year was “solid recognition” of the need to play catchup, he said. It would have dramatically improved response times and rescue capabilities of the department, but the city cancelled the hirings for financial reasons.
“Money cannot override public safety all the time. It cannot be the deciding factor when it comes to saving people’s lives and property,” said Lorne West, a Surrey firefighter, and a senior official with the International Association of firefighters.
The mayor expressed her displeasure with the union’s tactic of using the media to press their negotiating demands, and stated the economic turmoil over the past few years meant the city was forced to put those hirings on the shelf.
“We had this little thing called the recession, and it put a lot of our plans on hold, like the library as well,” she said.
Nine per cent of the city budget currently goes to fire protection services and the Chilliwack Fire Department, which is “a huge chunk,” Gaetz underlined.
If they doubled every budget area, Chilliwack would be faced with a 100 per cent tax increase, the mayor warned.
The department has added staff steadily over the years, as well as new equipment, and a new fire hall in Sardis.
“Since 2000 they’ve gone from 13 members to 32,” Gaetz said, which should indicate to the residents that fire protection remains “a priority” for the city.
“But there are limitations to what we can ask of the taxpayer.”
The union has formally asked for 16 more firefighters, in part to be able to meet the four-firefighter standard for entering burning structures. It would mean an extra $1.48 million.
West also notes that building fire department resources and response capability doesn’t necessarily need to result in a tax increase, if public safety is recognized as a priority and existing municipal revenues are redirected to the fire department.
“It’s quite possible that two of the city’s stations could be staffed full-time with enough firefighters to respond in four minutes to much of the city with enough personnel to conduct interior search and rescue the moment they arrive, with little or no tax increase,” he suggested.
But overall this public forum was not appreciated in this case.
“I find it unfortunate that they are using fear-mongering to promulgate their request for more members,” Gaetz added.
The city’s suggestion was for a four-year phase-in for the new career firefighters.
With 130 paid on-call firefighters proudly serving alongside 27 full-timers, Chilliwack has something other communities cannot claim to have.
“I was glad to see the union recognizing the role on-call firefighters play in this community,” she said. “This is something not found in other communities.”
City officials always have to “weigh the risk” in making annual budgeting decisions around funding.
“The union needs to understand that things can’t happen all at once,” she said. “There is no doubt they care about public safety, as much as we do. I only hope the people of Chilliwack know that they are safe.”