Innisfil, Bradford creeping toward consolidation of fire service

A working group has been struck to hammer out the details for the consolidation of the Bradford West Gwillimbury Fire and Emergency Service and the Town of Innisfil Fire and Rescue Service.

But whether the two local fire departments ever actually merge is the approximately $2-million question.

An interim joint fire governance committee was formed following the late June council meetings for both municipalities. The group consists of three members of each council as voting members, the chief administrative officers for both towns and Fire Chief Brent Thomas, who currently oversees both departments.

As joint chief, Thomas’s role is the only thing that has been consolidated between the two departments so far, but for him, it just makes sense to move further down that path.

“For me, they’re very similar towns that cover a lot of area,” he said in a recent interview. “There are a lot of efficiencies that we could realize if we were to blend the two departments together. A lot of municipalities are concerned with the cost of fire services, so if we could realize efficiencies through a blend or a consolidation, that certainly is a win from a bunch of different levels and perspectives for councils and communities as we move forward.”

Thomas took the role at the helm of both departments in May 2020 and by that fall both councils had approved to investigate the feasibility of a shared fire service. When that report came back from Ernst & Young earlier this year, it found that there have been some efficiencies found in the current set-up, with the two separate fire departments sharing one chief.

But the towns had gone as far as they could with the resource sharing between the services, as well as the processes that have been streamlined. Without consolidating, the report found there could still be some money saved, but the opportunity to further reduce costs while able to improve service levels was no longer an option for the municipalities.

Over a 10-year period, Bradford West Gwillimbury could see savings of more than three per cent while Innisfil would see savings of more than one per cent. The cost of the service is to be split 54 per cent for Innsifl and 46 per cent for Bradford West Gwillimbury, based on population, however, census numbers released since the report’s conclusion may change those figures slightly.

Ernst & Young also found gaps in service in both municipalities, with response times falling behind the provincial standard in some cases, particularly in Bradford West Gwillimbury. The best way to fill those gaps is with more full-time firefighters, and for Bradford West Gwillimbury to match Innisfil’s staffing numbers, 20 will have to be hired.

Without equalization in fire suppression services, the savings envisioned by consolidation will take longer to materialize, staff in both municipalities reported to their councils. To achieve the recommended service level as much as $2.6 million could be added to the Bradford West Gwillimbury operating budget.

“It’s absolutely recommended, but there are some options there, which will be explored by the members of the councils put on our working group to come up with the agreement and the budget process,” Thomas said. “Those questions will be answered and flushed out as far as levels of service and staffing process, which should wrap up the beginning of 2023.”

For Innisfil councillors, unless Bradford West Gwillimbury comes to the table with an equal complement of firefighters, consolidation won’t happen.

“If they do not staff up to the same level as us, then that’s a deal breaker on my part,” Mayor Lynn Dollin said during Innisfil’s June 22 council meeting.  

“I know that Innisfil has a high level of service than in Bradford and I wouldn’t want to see that level of service diminished here in Innisfil to accommodate the lack of hiring by Bradford and the lack of training by Bradford with the full-timers,” added Innisfil Deputy Mayor Dan Davidson.

Since 2012, Bradford West Gwillimbury has hired nine firefighters, one training officer and one prevention inspector, Coun. Raj Sandhu said. And as one of his colleagues pointed out, Bradford West Gwillimbury is without one significant financial advantage that Innisfil has that might have helped provide the expanded fire service to reach all corners of its vast municipality.

“We don’t have the casino, like Innisfil has,” Coun. Peter Dykie said. “I just want to see how we’re not going to hit the taxpayers, because we have enough financially underpaid projects for the future.”

Dykie also wondered if hiring three or four firefighters each year would be feasible, but Thomas recommended against it.

While there was an awareness around the council table about the need to improve service in the municipality, putting an additional $2 million-plus on the tax bill for Bradford West Gwillimbury residents in one fell swoop was not something any councillor seemed willing to stomach.

Bradford West Gwillimbury Mayor Rob Keffer turned to Director of Finance Ian Goodfellow for an explanation of any opportunity to soften the cost of the extra firefighters to the ratepayers.

Money from development charges can be used to outfit the firefighters or purchase new equipment, Goodfellow said, but not the firefighters themselves.

“The majority of the expense is in your operating budget, for the ongoing training, the wages and benefits and any other cost that come with having a larger group of employees under that service area,” he said. “As we go through this process, I imagine we’ll be looking at any other options available to mitigate the financial impact.”

Those options, Goodfellow added, could include utilizing reserve funds which would help phase in the changes over the years.

One thing development charges could cover is the construction of the second fire hall in Bradford West Gwillimbury, expected to be built in or around Bond Head. Innisfil Coun. Bill Van Berkel questioned if Innisfil would be responsible for servicing part of Bradford West Gwillimbury until it comes online. Bradford West Gwillimbury Coun. Jonathan Scott also noted the proximity between the Cookstown fire hall and the northwest portion of Bradford West Gwillimbury as an example of the efficiencies that could exist while still providing the utmost protection to residents in both municipalities.

Municipalities throughout the province have agreements with each other when it comes to fire response already, including between Bradford West Gwillimbury and Innisfil. If an event occurs where the Cookstown hall would be the fastest to respond, they will take to the scene until Bradford West Gwillimbury can arrive. After the fact, funds are exchanged for the service provided.

Consolidation, Thomas suggested, will improve upon this partnership.

“It’s not going to change,” he said. “If anything, it’s going to improve what we’re able to do, especially when we’re looking at an exponential new growth in both communities in the near future.”

Such an agreement was seen following the two-vehicle collision that shut down a portion of County Road 27 July 21. Given its proximity to Schomburg, King Township firefighters were first on the scene.

King Township’s all-volunteer force was the topic of discussion among Bradford West Gwillimbury councillors prior to their June 21 meeting. Thomas circulated an email before that meeting to explain the difference between departments and why he felt Bradford West Gwillimbury would be better served by a mix of volunteers and career firefighters.

“I was outlining some of the differences in composite and volunteer departments and why with our risk profile and our call volumes, we needed to be a composite department,” he said. “That was clarity they need to sort of set their minds at ease or answer the question of composite versus volunteers, which would then impact consolidation with Innisfil, also being a composite fire department.”

Bradford currently has more than 30 volunteer firefighters but has the capacity for a maximum of 48. They receive the same training that a career firefighter receives, but over an extended period of time.

The interim joint Fire Governance Committee will continue to meet throughout 2022 as it develops a draft service agreement, including an agreement on a harmonized level of service plan and implementation schedule. The new councils in both towns will debate the merits of the proposal as early as possible in 2023.


<back to Headlines