Talk of budget cut leaves fire chief fuming

Talk of budget cut leaves fire chief fuming - Foster says service levels will have to be reduced to meet council’s target

MIDLAND – Council will have to cut service levels if it hopes to keep the Midland Fire Department budget on target, says Chief Kevin Foster.

Foster told The Mirror in order for his department to meet the target, it would need to return to a pre-2004 model in which only duty crew were sent to alarm calls. That meant the number of firefighters on duty at the station at the time of the alarm was the number that attended calls.

“They would do an assessment of the call and, if there turned out to be an actual incident, then they would request a general alarm and additional (firefighters) would then respond,” he explained.

Foster has been adamant since he first presented his proposed 2012 budget to council that a return to the previous level of service should not be considered.
“The level of service that previous councils have supported is the service we’re providing today,” he said.

Foster noted the department’s proposed budget for 2012 was $124,500. He said council looked at the 2004 model and determined that would cost $52,500 today.
“Council then determined they’d take the difference between the two,” said the chief. “If we were basing it on last year’s numbers, then the number should have been $133,000, (but) we recognized we had an opportunity to make some improvements in our system and look at some efficiencies, so $124,500 was our recommended number.”
Foster said the overall target from council was a two per cent increase, and his proposal came in at 0.4 per cent.

He added the level of service and the resulting cost of his proposal was based on requirements initially approved by council, but since modified.
“Through the budget process (for 2012), council has altered the funding allocation for coverage for overtime for general alarms for fire calls,” he said. “They are going to have to change the level of service that will be provided.”

During Monday’s council meeting, Mayor Gord McKay reminded councillors they are attempting to create direction for the fire chief, specifically regarding a deployment model and, more broadly, a plan to meet budget targets.

Coun. Jack Charlebois again voiced concerns over what he called an issue of public safety.

“I voted against this at budget time because it boils down to public safety. To go back to an eight-year or older deployment system … heaven forbid that anyone gets hurt,” he said.

Coun. Zena Pendlebury pointed out Foster has repeatedly told council the budget he has been asked to live with does not meet the safety requirements the Ontario Fire Marshal’s office.

“If we don’t go back and revisit this budget line, or do something to address concerns he is flagging for us, we’d be remiss of our responsibilities,” she said.

Any spending over the budgeted amount would create a deficit, treasurer Sue Gignac acknowledged when asked by McKay to clarify what the result would be should the department not meet the target.

Coun. Pat File said she simply does not fully understand the assessment of risk her colleagues see.

“From reports we get, the average number of firefighters that respond has been going up to 17 … and yet we’re told there needs to be four,” she said. “How do we ensure we get the number of firefighters arrive at the scene so their safety is paramount, (but) so the difference is between four and 19 – we don’t always need 19.

“Is there another method in which we can assign officers that would result in a lower amount in our payroll?”

McKay said he’s certain the chief has responded to council’s request in good faith.
“If he had another model, I don’t think he’d hold it back from us. We want to keep costs down, but we don’t want to bring undue risk,” said McKay.

The current deployment model, Foster told The Mirror, has been in place since approximately 2004, when the council of the day agreed the town needed to send additional resources in order to reduce intervention time at fires.

“This allows the fire department to be able to begin operations – whether it be rescue, firefighting, suppression operations, etc. The amount of people you have on scene dictates the amount of work you can do,” he said.

As for how reducing service could impact residents, Foster said public safety could be at risk.

“If council elects to alter the level of service, that means there will be a time delay from when incident starts … until we have resources on scene. Today, if that takes five minutes, altering that may change that to 10 minutes. There are so many variables that come into play,” he said.

At the end of Monday’s meeting, Foster and CAO Ted Walker were asked to take another look at additional savings possibilities.