More than $100 million in new funding would help, but that amount outlined in a draft city budget would leave Calgary’s fire department struggling to meet its goals, the service chief says.
City administrators are recommending an additional $33 million in operating funding and another $73.7 million on the capital side over the next four years.
It’s welcome money for firefighters increasingly stretched by a growing city, call volumes that rose 16 percent last year over 2020 and continue to rise, and increasingly complex responsibilities, Chief Steve Dongworth said.
That operational envelope would mean adding 188 more personnel — most of them firefighters — he said.
“Obviously, $33 million is a lot of money and we’re in an environment where there are competing priorities and a limited corporate capacity to fund things,” Dongworth said.
“In an increasingly complex world, I’m concerned that it will be a real challenge for the organization to achieve its mission over the next four years … there are things we will be able to do less of or not at all.”
Last summer, Dongworth city councilors presented three options: increase staffing levels, buy more air trucks and add fire stations.
These options’ included total capital costs amounted to $51 million, with ongoing operating costs of another $51.7 million annually. This will provide for the appointment of 315 new firefightersthe addition of four new and six converted aerial equipment and the construction of two more fire stations.
Dongworth also noted this week the city’s goal of responding to calls with two engines and an air truck is 11 minutes 77 percent of the time, with its crews now driving an average of 13 minutes.
The resources in the draft budget would cut that by 10 to 20 seconds — far short of that goal — but would have a bigger effect than it seems, he said.
“It will have an impact on public and firefighter safety … a fire can double in size in 30 seconds or in a minute, so that’s progress,” Dongworth said.
He also said the money should double the air truck staffing from two to four crews and add two more fire stations each with an aerial unit in the Belmont and Haskayne areas.
Two other stations, to be built at the same time in Belvedere and Shepherd, were announced in 2018.
But he said the department has seen declines over the years, especially downtown, and that the need to respond to addictions, mental health and social disorders with the catastrophic specter of climate change is weighing on his department.
The proposed budget’s hiring of a single emergency vehicle maintenance technician is not sufficient and there are concerns about the department’s training capacity, which can only produce 90 to 100 new recruits a year, the chief added last July.
“It will not keep up with demand … we are starting to show cracks and cannot expect people to do more and more than is reasonable,” he said on Wednesday.
His hope is that city councilors will see the administration’s funding proposals as “the bare minimum.”
The Calgary Firefighters Association also raised the alarm about funding, saying the department has seen $30 million in cuts since 2015 and the loss of nearly 200 staff.
In a tweet Tuesday, the union representing 1,400 fire service personnel said: “wI look forward to presenting to council soon on the need to increase our budget to keep up with Calgary’s new communities.”
Still, city administrators in their budget document say their proposals are intended to meet the fire department’s primary goals.
“We will improve service levels for Calgarians by focusing on response times, preparing for new and emerging incident types, and meeting the challenge of increasing frequency and severity of incidents as we evolve the fire service to meet the demands of the 21st century, ” it reads. .
They also cite the importance of limiting flame spread to within the source room 67 percent of the time, noting that some factors such as building materials and building design are beyond firefighters’ control.
“While this may affect future performance expectations, improvements in response time performance and resource availability should make this feasible by 2026.”
The city council will approve the budget later this month after public input and debate on possible changes.