Innisfil fire chief looking for efficiencies, benefits of shared fire department with Bradford

The Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury shares a number of services with its northern neighbour, the Town of Innisfil.

The two municipalities have an amalgamated police department — South Simcoe Police Service, which was formed in 1997 — and Bradford also receives its potable water supply from Innisfil’s Lakeshore Water Treatment Plant via pipeline.

And since May, the two towns have also shared a fire chief.

Tom Raeburn is a career firefighter who started with the Innisfil service in 1995 and rose through the ranks. He has been Innisfil's fire chief since 2018, when then-chief Jon Pegg retired. Pegg has since taken on the role of Ontario fire marshal.

Earlier this year, an agreement was signed between Innisfil and Bradford West Gwillimbury, naming Raeburn as Bradford’s new interim fire chief following Kevin Gallant's retirement at the end of May.

Raeburn already was in charge of co-ordinating five stations in the Town of Innisfil and a department consisting of 40 full-time firefighters, 84 volunteers, two fire prevention officers and a training officer.  

The agreement with Bradford West Gwillimbury added another 20 full-time firefighters, 36 volunteers, two fire prevention inspectors and a training officer, working out of a single fire station located in Bradford.

“It’s a lot. I’m not going to sugar-coat it,” Raeburn said when asked about the challenges of managing and co-ordinating the two fire departments. “These two departments work in completely different ways.”

It has been his role to look at the potential benefits of a shared fire department and the pooling of resources “with the common goal of delivering an even better service to the residents.”

What he has discovered so far is that Innisfil Fire & Rescue and Bradford West Gwillimbury Fire & Emergency Services have “different policies, different programs, different equipment,” said Raeburn. “Even the technology doesn’t talk.”

Despite the challenges, Raeburn says he's “super excited” to be working with the “super group” of dedicated men and women at Bradford’s fire department to look for efficiencies and ways to improve the operations of both departments.

As an example, he cited the recent introduction of automation in Innisfil by moving from paper to digital processes — online procedures that could also be introduced in Bradford.

“There’s a lot of excitement down here (in Bradford) to make it more automated,” Raeburn said.

And a sense that there are efficiencies to be found that will save “a lot of money for taxpayers," he added. 

Raeburn has taken on the joint role just in time to oversee the construction of a new Bradford fire station.

He’s had plenty of experience: Raeburn was involved in the construction of three new fire stations in Innisfil – in Cookstown, Lefroy, and the new Friday Harbour station on 25 Sideroad that opened this year.

“In Innisfil, it was a four-year plan,” Raeburn said. “Here, I’m walking in. They’re ready to start digging.”

He has praise for former chief Gallant and the team that worked on the design of the new Bradford station.

“I’m excited,” he said. “It’s going to be a really great facility, well-designed.”

Raeburn will also be in a position to help guide plans for a second station in Bradford to service both residential development in the hamlet of Bond Head and new industrial/commercial development along Highway 400, and reduce response times on fire calls.

“That’s certainly a concern for fire protection,” he said.

A second station “is absolutely in the capital plan,” Raeburn noted, and could get underway as early as 2022, although the location is still to be determined.

Options could include a leased property within the so-called 'employment lands' along Highway 400 or a town-owned property on County Road 88 within Bond Head itself.

“It will be interesting to see where that ends up,” Raeburn said.

In his role as chief of Innisfil Fire & Rescue, Raeburn recently oversaw the purchase of a fire boat to service the Lake Simcoe town's extensive shoreline.

Similar to the vessel purchased by the South Simcoe police, the boat is fitted with a main pump capable of pumping 1,250 gallons of water per minute straight from the lake.

That capacity is “as big as all of our fire trucks,” said Raeburn, and will be useful in fighting shoreline structure fires as well as boat blazes.

The new boat will also be used to assist South Simcoe police in search-and-rescue operations on Lake Simcoe. It can also help the Town of Innisfil’s operations team in shoreline maintenance and the placement of buoys, the kind of co-operative approach and shared efficiencies that have characterized Raeburn’s approach.

The original hope was to have the half-million-dollar boat in service by this summer, but COVID-19 has impacted construction.

Now, Raeburn said, “we’re hoping to have it delivered in October.”

Innisfil firefighters have already taken 40 hours of in-class training for the new boat, but will have to wait for delivery to get the on-water, hands-on training needed to operate what is classified as a “commercial vessel.”

That training will take place “hopefully this fall. It depends on the weather,” the fire chief said. “We’re hoping to have it up and running by early spring of 2021.”

The new boat was purchased with financial assistance from Friday Harbour Resort, which was interested in protecting its million-dollar waterfront condos and 1,000-slip marina. Part of the donation includes a 20-year slip at the Friday Harbour marina.

The boat will definitely fill a need. Currently, there are only a handful of the specialized vessels operating on the lake.

The Town of Georgina launched its fire boat this summer, but with less pump capacity; and York Region also operates boats equipped with water pumps.

“The problem is, they take too long to come here,” Raeburn said.

The new Innisfil fire boat will not only provide protection for Innisfil’s shoreline, but also potentially the city of Barrie through a new fire protection agreement.

It’s all about finding efficiencies, new ways to optimize resources – something that Raeburn is also pursuing in his new role as interim chief in Bradford.

“There are a lot of things that we can do that will benefit both departments,” he said.

Raeburn will be reporting back to town council with his findings in August.

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