After years of cuts and making do, Calgary’s fire department could be in for a significant budget increase this fall, following a frank discussion at a Calgary council meeting on Wednesday.
Fire Chief Steve Dongworth appeared before council’s executive committee to deliver a report on risks his department is facing and mitigation plans.
The report included three options: increase staffing levels, buy more aerial trucks and add fire stations.
But Mayor Jyoti Gondek saw a problem with the way the options were presented.
“What troubles me about these options is they’re not options,” said the mayor. “They’re three things we need to do.”
The three options’ total capital costs came in at $51 million, with ongoing operating costs of another $51.7 million annually. It would allow for the hiring of 315 new firefighters, the addition of four new and six converted aerial apparatus and the construction of two more fire stations.
Dongworth said even hiring is a challenge, because the city can only train 90 to 100 new recruits per year. The chief suggested that could be sped up slightly, and they have been looking at streamlining the training in case more funding does come through.
The fire department continues to see increased demand for service. Dongworth said last year calls for service were up 16 per cent over 2020, and this year the number appears to be closer to 20 per cent.
Dongworth told council that approving all three options would enable the fire department to shave 75 seconds off its response time.
The options presented would still not have the fire department meeting the NFPA 1710 benchmarkswhich Calgary has not been meeting for years. The city instead has its own benchmarks that were developed in 2008.
The chief talked about the challenges his department is facing, including newer homes that are constructed much closer together out of materials that burn more quickly.
Another major issue Dongworth said his crew faces is the rise in medical callsspecifically for opioid overdoses.
While it is the job of the EMS system to respond to medical calls, fire department members attend as well, and are often first on the scene.
Dongworth said as a percentage of total call volume, medical calls are up just over 50 per cent.
Ward 14 Coun. Peter Demong put a hypothetical question to the chief.
“If you stopped responding to medical calls, and actually let EMS and AHS do their actual job, how would that impact your service levels in response to us?” he asked.
“Evidently, it would help us,” replied Dongworth. “I would suggest that would be a tragedy for the citizens of Calgary.”
The chief noted that while the fire department does not get any financial compensation from the province for the medical work they do while on scene, the province has provided the department with some medical supplies and free medical training.
Speaking after the meeting, Dongworth told reporters he felt the councillors’ responses were encouraging.
“Over the last number of years, we’ve been asked to be very frugal with our budget and actually reduce parts of our budget. So all those things have added up,” he said.
Dongworth said technically the fire department budget has increased slightly, but not nearly enough to keep up with the increasing demand of a growing city.
Gondek said she spent a lot of time during her last four years as a councillor trying to find funding for the fire department and fighting across-the-board cuts. She said this new council seems to see fire service as more of a priority.
The mayor said with news of a provincial surplus of $3.9 billionthere will need to be some “pretty real” conversations with the province.
“I will be making sure that we are advocating for a share of that $3.9 billion,” said Gondek. “Especially considering we’re picking up the pieces for medical calls right now, and have a budget request coming from our fire department that is also intended to cover medical calls.”
Wednesday’s discussion was a report for council’s information. The final decision on funding won’t be made until budget talks scheduled for November.