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Can we afford firefighters we need?

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City firefighters respond to call from the city's Station No. 1 downtown Wednesday evening.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

City firefighters respond to call from the city's Station No. 1 downtown Wednesday evening. Photo Store

How many firefighters are enough?

Seems a simple enough question. But as we're seeing this week, figuring out exactly how many firefighters we need in Winnipeg is nothing short of a confounding exercise.

The debate over firefighter staffing has been triggered by a full-on battle between the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service and the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, the union representing the city's 800-plus firefighters. The specific issue is overtime and the fact the service's spending on premium pay has nearly doubled this year alone.

Acting fire Chief William Clark issued a memo to all WFPS personnel Tuesday proposing a series of staffing measures to bring OT under control.

UFFW president Alex Forrest alleged the acting chief was putting the lives of citizens and firefighters at risk with his cost-saving measures.

Why have overtime costs run out of control? Both sides in the dispute have theories.

Forrest insists a failure to replace the growing ranks of retiring firefighters is the issue. With vacancies rising, the service is forced to plug shift holes with firefighters drawing premium rates. A 2010 audit of the WFPS confirmed a failure to replace retiring firefighters was creating the OT crunch.

Forrest noted that this year, the city did not hire any new firefighters despite 34 retirements and another dozen or so on long-term disability. Further, the union head said that until this year, city officials preferred to pay OT to firefighters rather than hire new ones and have to cover the cost of benefits for 25 years.

Sources within the WFPS confirm OT opportunities have never been better. One firefighter said when he started two decades ago, it was rare to get more than a few OT opportunities a year; now, he said most firefighters are getting two or three opportunities to work extra hours each week.

The issue for the WFPS appears to be a lack of control over employee absences. Clark wrote in his memo a shortage of full-time firefighters was not the issue driving the overtime. Rather, it was the "number of members who are available to work on any given day."

Clark no doubt realizes he is feeding into a widely held but largely unproven theory that firefighters have a very relaxed schedule. Just about everyone knows a firefighter who also has a thriving business renovating basements or building cabinets.

Although he was careful to couch his words, Clark strongly suggested firefighters are taking advantage of leave benefits. He pointed a finger at causes "above and beyond the normal leave allotments," such as sick time, family days and worker's compensation claims.

Firefighting has always been a difficult municipal service to manage. Resources need to be spread throughout the city because it is impossible to predict when the next big fire or horrendous traffic accident will occur.

We also know certain older core neighbourhoods produce more fire calls than suburban areas. Further, while some fire stations respond to several fires a week, others may go a year or more without one. Clark noted in his memo 75 per cent of all calls for assistance to the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service are for emergency medical assistance, not fires.

Does all that justify Clark's cost-saving measures? At first blush, creating more squads to respond to lower-priority medical calls makes sense. However, the reality is any move to reduce the number of firefighters on the job at any one time is little more than a calculated wager on public safety.

Firefighting is essentially a study in constant preparedness. This is a job that is all about training, testing and repairing equipment and maintaining a vigil while awaiting the first sign of smoke. It's about being ready for anything at any time.

You simply cannot assess operational effectiveness by how many calls for service an individual station gets.

Internationally, standards have been established to help guide decisions on the number of firefighters needed in cities of different sizes and populations. According to the UFFW, Winnipeg has only barely met those standards.

Anecdotally, front-line firefighters tell stories of major failures in equipment, including an aging, worn-out fleet of vehicles and an inventory of increasingly decrepit firehouses. Of even greater concern, the union confirms scheduled training for many firefighters is not being done because the WFPS cannot afford to pay OT to cover their shifts.

There may very well be an abuse of leave benefits, and there is also likely a case to be made for a larger number of less heavily staffed "squad" units to handle the preponderance of medical calls. However, this is, in its essence, more a fiscal issue than an emergency-services issue.

Afraid to raise property taxes and burdened with suffocating infrastructure demands, local governments across Canada are desperately looking for ways to control their costs. That has forced many to look to emergency services, a previously untouchable line in most municipal budgets.

The answer may be that at existing taxation levels and without more support from senior levels of government, we cannot afford what we really need.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 19, 2013 B1

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