Fire chief says budget cuts will increase response times, strain resources

Calgary Fire Department Chief Steve Dongworth speaks to media at #16 Station on 11 St SE in Calgary on Friday, July 26, 2019. Jim Wells/Postmedia

Days after council voted to cut $7.6 million from the Calgary fire department’s budget, in addition to the $1.4 million reduced earlier this year, the fire chief is warning it will lengthen response times and strain resources.

City council made the announcement Tuesday, as part of its $60-million cut package to prop up businesses affected by the downtown tax shift.

The budget reduction means the department will decommission four medical response units and one rescue unit, forcing regular fire trucks to respond to more medical calls and a service reduction for critical medical interventions.

Four Calgary fire department units which have been taken out of service are parked at #16 Station on 11 St SE in Calgary on Friday, July 26, 2019. Jim Wells/Postmedia

Chief Steve Dongworth said response time targets are seven minutes for the first unit to respond to fire and emergency calls and 11 minutes to assemble an effective response force, which typically includes two engine units and an aerial and rescue unit for serious cases.

“Already we are around the 13-minute mark for the effective response force and this will doubtless mean that it will go further in the wrong direction, without question,” said Dongworth.

He explained the cuts will also affect their ability to fight fires with haste.

“Inevitably, what it means in some circumstances is we’ll have to evolve our tactics a little bit and be a bit less aggressive with fires because we don’t have all the people on scene as quickly to safely manage the situation like we might have done before,” he said.

While his service won’t be losing staff, it also won’t be able to hire in the foreseeable future.

The summer recruit class in mid-July was cancelled when budget cuts were looming.

Calgary Firefighter duty gear is shown at #16 Station on 11 St SE in Calgary on Friday, July 26, 2019. Jim Wells/Postmedia

Dongworth said the group of 40 will be the first invited back when they are able to hire again, but doesn’t imagine the possibility of new hires until 2021, at the earliest, and it could be even longer if there are additional cuts down the line.

He added that staffing, which accounts for 90 per cent of the overall fire department budget, will be reduced further by retiring firefighters. There’s no plan to replace those positions.

The service has also nearly eliminated overtime in an effort to avoid layoffs.

Traditionally, the fire department had a minimum level of staffing to operate the vehicles, and if it fell below that level it would pay overtime to bring in people. Now, trucks are taken out of service to avoid overtime and sustain the current workforce.

However, Dongworth’s biggest concern is how service cuts might impact the safety of his team and residents.

“One thing that keeps me awake at night is getting that call that one of our people has been injured or worse,” he said.

“Whenever you reduce your resources, there is a big risk for those people if we don’t adapt our tactics. Firefighters are the type of people who always want to help and sometimes, even if there aren’t enough resources on scene, they will do things spontaneously to try and help citizens and I can’t criticize that. I’ve been in that position. I’ve done those same things.”

alsmith@postmedia.com

Twitter: @alanna_smithh

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