Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fire safety puzzle

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The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service has 27 stations with firefighting capability, so a proposal to reduce service in two of those locations does not seem on the surface like a dramatic reduction that will put lives at risk.

Like the police department, the fire service has an executive officer on duty 24-7 who routinely shuffles resources to compensate for shortages that may occur because too many firefighters called in sick, or to provide backup for a station that is fully deployed.

It's not unusual for up to 40 firefighters to be off on any day because of holidays, sick leave, disability or some other issue, which means the job of managing the fire department is constantly put to the test.

The fire service says it could still meet minimum response times with two less trucks and smaller crews, a cost saving intended to reduce the city's burgeoning overtime bill for firefighters, which has increased by 86 per cent over last year.

But if the department can be downsized without any impact, it's natural to wonder if the department is overstaffed.

Acting chief William Clark says a surplus of workers is desirable because it provides time for training, as well as providing a reserve for those who are not available for duty.

Which leads to the next question: Why not hire more staff if it will produce a net saving for the city?

In response, Chief Clark says hiring more firefighters -- the department has close to 900 workers -- would result in a surplus that cannot be justified by the current demand for service.

The staffing formula, he says, is based on an historic analysis of the city's needs and ongoing risk assessments, which calculate the impact of firefighters being unavailable for service.

It all sounds reasonable until the firefighters union warns the chief's plan could put lives at risk.

Unions are expected to defend or improve on the status quo, but the dispute has left Mayor Sam Katz and some city councillors in a quandary, particularly since the firefighters are very aggressive in promoting their agenda during elections. Some 900 firefighters available for campaign duty is a powerful force that has been very effective in securing the support of mayoral and council candidates, and even those running at the provincial level.

Mayor Katz says the fire service and the union should work together to resolve the problem, but that's easier said than done, and it's also an abandonment of the city's responsibility to manage.

The best way for the city to proceed is to develop an evidence-based model that everyone can understand.

The city, for example, hasn't undertaken a comprehensive risk-assessment since 2000, which means another one is overdue, despite the department's claim it is constantly evaluating the community's vulnerability.

Cities across North America are trying to reduce the cost of emergency services, which account for 44 per cent of Winnipeg's operating budget, but there is a risk in proceeding solely on the basis of achieving savings.

The Urban Fire Forum, an educational group representing metropolitan fire departments, for example, has warned of the "potential unintended consequences" of budget cuts. It warns against "whirlwind cuts" that can leave a community without adequate protection.

Indeed, the model for a safe community may well involve accepting the rising cost of emergency services, but the point is that cities need a better understanding of their needs and of how budget cuts might affect safety, if at all.

The problem may not be the number of firefighters or police officers, but the generous wages and benefits for jobs that are easily filled because they are in demand.

The job of the mayor and city councillors is to ensure they are informed and have all the information they need to make a decision that balances safety and the need for efficient use of taxpayer funds.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 19, 2013 A14

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