In a struggle that plays out in council chambers across the country at this time of year, fire chiefs stand up to defend the cost of services their departments provide for taxpayers.
Powell River Fire Rescue (PRFR) chief Terry Peters appeared before City of Powell River council on Thursday, February 9, to provide a report on the emergency services department, specifically PRFR.
“2016 was a very busy year for us,” Peters told the committee.
Fire rescue responded to more than 1,000 calls in 2016 and 2017 is shaping up the same, said Peters.
The chief explained in his report that his department, with its 14 career and 27 auxiliary firefighters, now has the greatest depth of training in the history of the city’s force.
In the full-service department, 97 per cent of career staff members have reached exemplary training levels, he said. That directly impacts residential homeowners’ insurance rates, Peters reminded the committee.
“Our crews are the boots on the ground when things go wrong in this community,” he said. “We’re dealing with people who are potentially having the worst days of their lives. The reality is that we’re there when the community needs us.”
Operationally, Peters said he has done his best to cut overtime costs and uses auxiliary members to assist in finding savings. He added that he has attempted to defer the purchase of costly equipment wherever he has been able to, and looks at Canadian suppliers over American ones due to added currency exchange costs.
“What I have been doing is cutting what I can without diminishing our services for our first-responder program,” Peters told the committee.
The city’s emergency services department had an annual budget of just over $3 million, well over 10 per cent of the city’s annual operating budget of approximately $22 million.
“Every dollar that comes through the department I scrutinize to make sure [taxpayers] are getting value,” said Peters.
That assurance did not stop city councillor Rob Southcott, who is also BC Ambulance Service Powell River unit chief, from questioning the resource allocation to operate the department’s first-responder program.
Southcott said the cost of the fire department had risen 37 per cent during the past four years.
“I just don’t see this as sustainable,” said Southcott.
Not included in the 2017 budget, but noted in Peters’ report, was the need for an additional $167,000 to hire a fire-protection officer, a position that would help conduct planning services related to building inspections.
Southcott said if the department was to look at how it operates its first-responder program and rejig it so firefighters were not attending all 911 calls, then it is possible capacity could be found to carry out the inspections without having to hire another position.
Peters responded that firefighters were filling a gap that exists due to not enough ambulance resources for the region.
“What we’re finding with the ambulance service is that we’re showing up and actually covering the shortfall for our citizens in our community,” said Peters.
Southcott said he took “a dim view” on that, because by attending those calls the municipality is condoning the provincial government putting more responsibility on the city for services it ought to provide.
“What I’m suggesting is a review of the real need,” said Southcott. “I really object to enabling provincial downloading.”
Mayor Dave Formosa agreed and suggested the discussion on the matter should be held outside of the finance meeting and the emergency services portfolio holder, councillor Maggie Hathaway, should organize a meeting to discuss the matter further.