Hot topic: Amalgamating Waterloo Region fire departments is worth a look
NewHamburgIndependent.ca
 
It’s the right question to ask, and the right time to ask it.
 
As the City of Kitchener moves forward with plans to build a new downtown fire station and hire 20 new firefighters, councillors asked pointed questions about how fire services are currently being delivered.
 
For starters, let’s recognize that the city has been a good steward of this particular line item in the budget.
 

As noted by Coun. Scott Davey, the number of firefighters in Kitchener has decreased over the past decade, even as the city’s population has increased. In Davey’s view, this is evidence that council has been tough on the fire department.

“Our fire department is extremely efficient,” Davey insists. “Now we’re at a point where we have to hire more firefighters, and it’s being staged over a number of years and it’s being done in a completely responsible way that reflects the population growth we’re seeing.”

Over the past 30 years, while the population of the city has increased by roughly 50 per cent, the number of Kitchener firefighters on duty at any one time has increased by only three per cent.

Taking into account our increasing population, the increasing number of highrises being built in the city, and the fact that the fire department is meeting provincial standards for response times on less than 60 per cent of its calls, adding staff and building a new station now is the prudent thing to do.

And while council unanimously agreed to the proposal, it also addressed an important question, especially as it pertains to the discussion in Waterloo Region.

While there were references in the meeting to “collaboration” and “partnering” with other fire departments in the region, and questions of whether those relationships might mitigate the need for additional firefighters to be hired in Kitchener, the idea of amalgamation was also injected directly into the conversation.

The “A-word” is still taboo in many corners of this community, but if we detach it from the political landscape, amalgamation seems particularly relevant in the context of fire services.

Our police service is a regional emergency service, as is our ambulance service. Further, our once individual transit systems are now delivered as one regional service, along with waste collection. Most recently, conversations have begun to possibly merge K-W and Waterloo North Hydro.

Conversations around a regionally-operated fire service should not be off the table.

The townships would certainly balk as they are now serviced by a complement of volunteer fire departments that cost a fraction of what the full-time services cost the cities. But even that should not be a barrier to exploring the idea further.

In fact, looking at cost alone is looking at the issue through too narrow a lens.

We should also consider economies of scale, with efficiencies in training and equipment purchasing that can lead to a leaner fire system overall.

While there will undoubtedly be conversations around administrative overlap within the system, the motivation should be around better service to the community.

If one police service and one ambulance service can adequately satisfy the needs of three cities and four townships, surely our fire service can do the same.

 

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