My job as Mayor has a variety of responsibilities. I have to be fair, transparent, fiscally responsible, and open and at times defend administration who do an outstanding job. In this blog, I’m going to try and do all those things, and maybe even add a little education along the way.
Over the weekend there was a lot of talk on social media about the fire department. This isn’t the first time we, as council, have heard about it. So, I want to take some time and clear some things up, so we can have a good discussion about this topic. I also want to ensure that we are all have the same information about the fire department.
To begin, I want to clear up some of the rumors, assumptions and opinions about our fire department. So lets start with the facts, we have a regional fire service with Five Halls (4 of them in the MD of Lesser Slave River and one in the Town). The Lesser Slave Regional Fire Service largely a volunteer based fire department, and in an ideal world we would have 100 volunteers, but due to issues with recruitment and retention in MD halls we are about 70 right now.
There are only four paid staff at the Regional Fire Service, the Chief, Deputy Chief, Administrative Assistant, and one Maintenance. These four positions are involved in the day-to-day operation of all five halls. We have hundreds of pieces of equipment from chainsaws, trucks, ladders, air tanks, pumps, etc.
The Fire Service operates 365 days a year 24 hours per day, and responds to over 300 calls annually. The service area is over 10,000 sq km and we sometimes have to go outside this area to assist (Fort McMurray Wildfires, BC Wildfires two of the most recent).
Currently it costs approximately $1.3-million annually to run the fire department in Slave Lake. The Slave Lake Hall generates some revenue to offset costs through mostly motor vehicle accidents (which Province pays us for), we don’t bill residents for house fires. These expenses are shared with MD via the Fire Services Agreement.
Town Council sits down with Fire Chief regularly to review service levels, and to look at budget annually. The fire services budget, since 2011 (that’s when I got on council so have not looked further back), has largely remained unchanged. If I am being 100% transparent, the fire services budget has actually gone down a little.
Our Firefighters are always doing training and are always looking to improve their skills to better respond to emergencies. The general thought is that the current firefighters feel that it’s important to know what they are doing if they are going to put their life on the lines when responding to calls.
Since 2011 our team has responded to a variety of calls, including motor vehicle accidents, water and land search and rescue, mill fires, house fires, trailer fires, vehicle fires, medical assists, ATV accidents, pedestrian accidents, plane crashes, medical assists, dangerous goods calls, ice rescue, just to name a few. The diversity of calls for a diverse selection of equipment, and a diverse amount training is needed to respond to these calls, quickly, safely and effectively.
One topic that I have personally heard about in the last few months is conversation around the new fleet of trucks. Lets be clear that some of these trucks were paid for by recovery money, or by insurance over the last few years.
The last thing we want is for a truck to break down on route to a call. That being said we replace our pick-ups every five years. The Town usually then takes the fire services truck, after 5 years, and swap it into the operations department fleet. This method ensures our newest rucks are always used in the area that are most needed. The heavier equipment (ladder, tanker, rescue trucks) are replaced every 20 years.
A topic that brought up recently on social media was over time, and $80,000 in overtime alone last year. To be honest for a service that only has four full time staff members and operates 24 hours a day/365 days a year there will be overtime.
In the last 5 years the Regional Fire Service has assisted other communities with disasters, and often incur overtime with these calls. The cost of responding, and assisting with these calls (including overtime), is recouped by the revenue we charge for helping other communities. To be transparent again, assisting in these types of calls can actually quite profitable for us, and often off sets our cost to operate the fire department.
The Live Fire Training Centre has been a source of topic, and to be blunt it has not cost the tax payers anything. The Firefighters society has fundraised money for this project, along with a variety of other equipment and projects.
One issue that comes up a lot in the “coffee shop talk” is that the Chief’s son works for our Fire Department. We currently have five additional staff (1 rural deputy chief and four FireSmart staff) who are currently fully funded, through recovery money, until 2021. Council’s intention is to work with the Province to extend this funding, or we will say goodbye to these hard working staff in 2021.
Our Fire Chief is the most passionate fire fighter I have ever met. Not only does he live, eat, sleep and breathe fire department; but it is obvious his passion has become his families’ “culture”. As a family, over the years they have spent time and energy investing into the fire department. This energy and time is often at their own expense.
When FireSmart was recruiting, some people were shocked to learn, one of the most knowledgeable, enthusiastic, passionate, and dedicated applicants was his son. So when he was selected, (a process that didn’t involve his father) Council was pretty happy to be recruiting someone local!
Now there are some people who think we currently have too much, do too much, costs are out of control and council has their “blinders” on. What I can tell you is this. We have leveraged a lot of grants and opportunities to drive down costs and reduce the burden on the taxpayer. For the last six years we have told the Fire Chief to hold the line on his budget, and he has done so. We continue to chase revenue opportunities, and are working with the MD to make sure we are both happy with the service we are delivering to you the resident.
Council often compares the cost of our service, number of people, and number of pieces of equipment to other similar sized operations. Yet again to be transparent we currently run with less people, and cost less.
It is easy to say you want to pay less for the fire department when things are going good. But when something bad happens, either a house fire, a motor vehicle accident, you don’t care about costs and want the fire department to show up in seconds with the best trained firefighters and best equipment out there.
Council currently tries to straddle the line and give the best of both worlds to residents. We make sure a great service is delivered, at a cost we can all afford. I will say this is how council deals with ALL DEPARTMENTS within the town.
The 2018 budget meetings begin next month, and usually take between 75-100 hours to complete. This may seem like a tonne of time, but having a zero percent tax increase the last two years in a row makes it seem worth it.