The never-ending debate over fire-paramedic stations in the city is delaying the replacement of crumbling facilities and putting public safety at risk, says the president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg.
Alex Forrest said at least five stations within the Perimeter Highway are in dire need of being mothballed and replaced with modern stations, but the mud-slinging in city council over the treatment received by Shindico Realty -- which built four new fire halls over the past couple of years -- has had a "chilling effect" on construction plans.
"It has just shut everything down. There is no movement from anyone, the politicians or the bureaucracy, about replacing these fire halls," he said.
Of particular concern to Forrest is the new Waverley West development, where houses continue to spring up, but a fire hall is not currently on any neighbourhood blueprint.
"We have an area the size of a small city, and the majority of the houses will be built there before the fire hall goes in," he said.
Forrest said Waverley West is "two to three times" the size of Sage Creek, another new housing development on the southeastern outskirts of town that experienced several major fires before a local fire hall was built.
'It has just shut everything down. There is no movement from anyone, the politicians or the bureaucracy, about replacing these fire halls' -- Alex Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg
"The situation at Waverley West is exactly what we thought we had learned at Sage Creek. The residents there had sub-standard response times," he said.
In the case of any emergencies in Waverley West, firefighters will be deployed from the closest out-of-area stations at Scurfield Boulevard and Waverley Street or Pembina Highway and Dalhousie Drive, Forrest said.
"Waverley West is a larger area, so more is at stake. The residents there don't pay less taxes, but they're going to get less service that has to do with saving their lives, that's (fire and paramedic)," he said.
A city spokesman said Waverley West is currently served by Station 22 (on Waverley), Station 12 (Taylor Avenue and Beaverbrook Street) and Station 18 (on Roblin).
To give an indication of the current state of some fire halls, Forrest said the recently shuttered facility on Berry Street had a stable area where horses used to be kept. In another station in Charleswood, you could see the ground below through the cracks in the floor. Firefighters there stuffed whatever they could into the cracks to keep the cold from getting in.
Forrest said the first fire truck can get to 90 per cent of Winnipeg four minutes from the first phone call and a full complement can be there in eight minutes. There is a six- to 10-minute window to get inside a house to conduct a rescue, he said.
"We won't even be able to get one fire truck (to Waverley West) in eight minutes," he said.
The longer it takes for firefighters to arrive on the scene, the more dangerous it is, particularly with new composite and plastic construction materials and lightweight metal supports that warp in hot temperatures.
"A fire in Sage Creek spreads five times faster, is more toxic and has a higher temperature (than elsewhere in the city.) We're finding the floors and roofs are collapsing in six to 10 minutes. It's usually 15 to 20 minutes," he said.
Bob Downs, development manager at Shindico Realty, said the four fire halls in question -- on Taylor Avenue, Roblin Boulevard, Sage Creek Boulevard and Portage Avenue -- are larger and have vastly improved amenities for the firefighters. For example, some of the antiquated ones were built in the days before female firefighters joined the force and don't have separate change rooms. In some, a bank of lockers serves as the barrier between male and female change areas.
"Who is a better firefighter: somebody sleeping in a dorm room or in a locker room?" he asked.
Forrest said the new fire halls are a vast improvement over the old ones.
"The firefighters are overjoyed with them. They're well-built and the locations are perfect. Public safety is better with those new halls," he said.
Forrest said because the Portage Avenue hall is state of the art, it allows for important training of firefighters.
"It also gives us fast access to River Heights, which is important for that whole area," he said.
Downs said more than three-quarters of the city's fire halls are more than 30 years old with one on Sargent recently having passed the century mark.
He said the firm won four contracts totalling $15 million to build the fire halls because its bids were lower than the competition.
He said Shindico's plan to build the Portage Avenue location in the cloverleaf off Route 90 saved the city $10 million because it didn't have to expropriate businesses and homeowners to build on nearby land.
The bids for the other three halls were each at least $1 million cheaper than other bids, he said.
Downs disputed a recent audit that said the contracts were awarded on a "non-competitive basis."
"We've played by the rules all the time, and we'll play by the rules again and probably take the heat like we always have," he said.