While the cost of providing firefighting services to the City of Nanaimo has risen in recent history, the proportion of responses to actual fires has declined. A mediation meeting between the City of Nanaimo and the International Association of Fire Fighters union Local 905 is scheduled for Sept. 30.
The last time both sides met in an effort to forge a new contract was Aug. 2. Their last agreement lapsed in March of 2010.
A contentious issue that divides the IAFF and the firefighters brass is a new delivery model, which could see two-man fire engines become a reality. The ranks of Nanaimo Fire and Rescue have become politicized without a contract. As the NFR seeks to provide an affordable yet effective service to the city, the supply of volunteers threatens to run dry.
While the situation in Nanaimo is not entirely unique when compared to other cities in B.C., officials are looking for a tailor-made solution that reflects the specific needs of the community.
The department's proposal to replace its 2005 fire plan with a new service delivery model has become a thorny issue.
Firefighters are balking at a proposal to have a two-member response to service calls from the peripheral stations, instead of the standard four-member response in practice now.
The plan proposed in April would also cap the total number of full-time, permanent firefighters at 100 by 2016 (there are currently 80 full-time members now, plus 70 on-call, paid staff). Under the 2005 fire plan, the size of the fire department would eventually increase to 140 personnel.
Fire Chief Ron Lambert, who is not a member of the union, admitted there is a "difference in values" between the city and firefighters on some issues. Under the plan, Fire Stations No. 1 on Fitzwilliam Street and No. 2 on Dorman Road would remain the central hubs for calls for service and would each be staffed by 20 full-time members.
Six smaller stations, including the Hammond Bay Road No. 3 station and the Cranberry Road No. 4 station, would serve outlying regions of the city. and would be staffed with 10 members each.
"I would suggest that the plan is pretty innovative, it's certainly out of the box," said Lambert. "And historically, fire departments have had more staffing on fire engines than what is being proposed."
Right now, 64.5 per cent of of all calls to the Nanaimo Fire Rescue are for medical emergencies. Structure fires are just 1.7 per cent of all calls --calls that a two--member team could respond to, Lambert said.
However, the union points out that while firefighters spend proportionately less time fighting fires, the actual number of blazes in the city has remained constant. The annual average number of fires in the city is 117.
Local 905 president Mike Rispin has said reducing the number of firefighters that are sent out to emergency medical calls could jeopardize public safety.
STAFFING OF FIRE DEPARTMENTS
Employment in similar-sized communities
Nanaimo Fire Rescue
Career employees 81
Paid-on-call volunteers 70
2013 budget $13.4 million
Kamloops Fire Rescue
Career employees 129
Paid-on-call volunteers 26
2013 budget $15.3 million
Prince George Fire Rescue Service
Career employees 126
Paid-on-call volunteers none
2013 budget $13.4 million
Kelowna Fire Department
Career employees 122
Paid-on-call volunteers 51
2013 budget $13.6 million
"We're not interested in any model that doesn't allow us the ability to do our jobs when we arrive on-scene," said Rispin in April. "And that takes four members."
Lambert said the final recommendations contained in a proposal to council will also depend on feedback from public consultation sessions. No dates have been set yet.
"I think the big issue from the public's perspective is two things: the level of service, and whether they are willing to pay," Lambert said.
Firefighters have not had a contract with the city since the last collective agreement expired in March 2010. The parties have appointed Vancouver-based arbitrator Rod Germaine to lead a formal arbitration process from Dec. 9-13.
Negotiations have been ongoing since June 2011. Discussions with a provincially-appointed mediator this year also failed.
Nanaimo human resources and organizational planning manager Terry Hartley said one last mediation session is planned for the end of September. If successful, it could see the two sides reach a deal and avert the arbitration process. If that doesn't happen, Hartley said both parties can attempt to at least narrow down the issues for discussion.
If arbitration goes forward, the decision will be binding. A decision would be expected early in the new year.
City officials expect a new agreement would include retroactive pay increases. Since 2010, the city has set aside money in a fund to pay for the anticipated raises, but finance director Brian Clemens has declined to say how much.
According to 2011 campaign disclosure documents, IAFF Local 905 donated a total $6,000 to three local candidates: councillors Ted Greves ($3,000), a former firefighter, Diane Brennan ($1,500) and Bill Bestwick ($1,500).
Disclosure documents also show that Local 905 donated $2,000 to Greves' successful summer 2011 by-election bid to fill a vacant seat on council. Greves also received $2,000 from FIREPAC Canada, an advocacy arm of the IAFF.
Brennan and Greves voted against sending the new fire plan to the consultation stage.
Greves, a former president of Local 905, said he doesn't agree with several of the underlying assumptions of the fire department's proposal.
"Everyone seems to think you only need two guys for (medical) calls, but quite often you need more," he said.
He also questions the logistics of co-ordinating emergency response from several outlying stations and wondered whether two-person engines would be properly equipped. He argued growing fire department costs also have to be measured against a growing population, expected to hit 100,000 by 2020.
NFR has 81 full-time, career professionals on its payroll - 76 of whom make more than $75,000 annually, with 24 firefighters exceeding $100,000. That compares to 70 on-call volunteers, paid at $15 per hour.
The lapsed agreement between IAFF Local 905 and the City of Nanaimo capped the number of volunteers at 64, not counting those who serve on Protection Island. By comparison, Prince George Fire Rescue retains no volunteers. Kamloops Fire Rescue has 26 auxiliary firefighters and the Kelowna Fire Department has 51 volunteers. The number of permanent positions in those departments reflect the lower number of volunteers. PGFR has 126 staff while Kamloops has 129 and Kelowna 122.
Despite the higher staffing levels, the operating budgets of each department are comparable for 2013.
NFR's operating budget this year is $13.4 million. In Kelowna the number is $13.6 million, in Prince George $13.4 million and in Kamloops $14.4 million.
As a portion of Nanaimo's overall operating budget, the NFR accounted for 10.5 per cent of the bottom line in 2013. That compares to Prince George (15 per cent), Kelowna (13.4 per cent) and Kamloops (10.7 per cent).
While NFR has pushed against the upper limits of the number of volunteers allowed in the contract between the city and IAFF Local 905, the fire chief said the biggest impediment to adding volunteers has been the difficulties of recruiting.
Higher standards compared to decades past mean volunteers require more education to serve their communities.
Those heightened expectations placed on the ability of volunteers has made it increasingly difficult to attract and retain paid-on-call firefighters who may have family and career commitments.
"We have a lot of people coming in and a lot of people coming out, what that means is your training costs go up significantly," said Lambert.
The volunteer crunch is being felt all over North America. Recruiters like Malahat Volunteer Fire Department fire chief Rob Patterson said it can be difficult for the public to grasp the growing expense of training and equipment, given the trend of a decline in structural fires.
"I don't know if we can reduce the costs of fire services in the province," he said. "But having more volunteers is certainly going to help. It's a self-propagating problem. The more people we have to help, the more training we have to give them."
The volunteer system is "beginning to fail," according to Rispin. "There's many times their ability to respond is quite delayed, which is understandable based on the fact they have to work," he said. "This is a secondary occupation for them."
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