Time for a review of Owen Sound's current fire service: chief

Time for a review of Owen Sound's current fire service: chief
By Dennis Langlois
The Owen Sound Sun Times
Link to article: Time for a review of Owen Sound's current fire service: chief

Owen Sound's fire chief says “the time has come” to see if there is a more cost-effective way to provide the city's fire service, which now costs property taxpayers nearly $5 million a year, while maintaining an adequate level of safety for residents.

Doug Barfoot said the investigation should include examining the merits of switching from a full-time to composite model.

“I'm not saying that's the answer for Owen Sound. What I'm saying is that is a possibility; that's what a lot of our neighbours are doing. What I am saying is, let's bring in an outside agency, a professional, and have a look at Owen Sound and let them compare us to (our neighbouring departments),” he said in an interview Friday.

Council is to receive a report from Barfoot Monday that recommends the city issue a request-for-proposals to hire a third-party consultant to examine options for fire protection in Owen Sound.

“It is important that we look to see if there is a level of service which can meet the need of the residents and businesses of Owen Sound safely and effectively. Our comparator services, Collingwood, Orangeville and Wasaga Beach to name a few, are providing it through composite departments,” the report says.

Mark Young, vice-president of the Owen Sound Professional Fire Fighters Association, said Friday that the organization believes switching from the current model to a composite model with full-time and volunteer firefighters “would only accomplish adding additional costs to the city to provide the same level of service we are currently providing.

“I suppose we will have to see the results of the (consultant's) report before we are able to comment.”

Owen Sound Mayor Ian Boddy said he would like to know what a consultant would say about whether a composite department could work for the city.

“We'll see what council says. I suspect that they'll go ahead with it,” he said.

“The more information we can collect, the more informed we are. After going through the service review in 2016 plus the OPP costing, we'll continue to look at finding more economical ways, if we can, to operate the city.”

The cost of Owen Sound's fire service has been a bone of contention in the city for years.

Eighteen cents of every property tax dollar that Owen Sound collects for city purposes funds the fire department.

About 92 per cent of the department's costs are wages and other compensation.

Over the years, city officials have criticized the provincial arbitration system, saying it does not adequately consider a municipality's ability to pay when deciding on wage increases for firefighters.

There have been calls over the years for the city to at least investigate moving to a composite model for its fire department.

Policing is the only city department that requires more property tax dollars than the fire service.

Last year, council requested an OPP costing for Owen Sound and hired a consultant to compare the proposal with the current service. In the end, council decided to stick with the city police, but asked the police service board to conduct a service review to look for more savings.

Barfoot's report comes after Owen Sound & District Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Peter Reesor asked council Oct. 17 if there is a way to determine if the city's current fire service is comparable, from a public safety and cost perspective, to those provided in similar communities.

Council then asked fire officials to prepare a report with that information.

Barfoot's report compares Owen Sound's fire department with fire services in several “comparator” municipalities, including Collingwood and Orangeville.

Owen Sound's full-time department has at least five firefighters on duty at all times, backed up by five firefighters on pager. The service operates with four platoons of six firefighters and two floaters. The per capita cost is $217.

Orangeville's composite department has four shifts of five full-time firefighters – to ensure 24/7 coverage – with back-up from 32 volunteer firefighters. The per capita cost is $159.

Collingwood's composite department has four shifts of six full-time firefighters, backed up by volunteer firefighters. The per capita cost is $202.

Barfoot's report says most fire services in Ontario are volunteer departments. While that model comes with the lowest cost, he said he does not believe it would serve “the needs of Owen Sound in providing an adequate level of service our residents expect and need.”

Full-time departments, like the one in Owen Sound, are “without question the most costly due to wages,” he said.

Composite departments, he said, are seen across Canada as being “the most cost-effective service for smaller municipalities.”

Barfoot's report says “change is not always easy” and “sometimes even the discussion of change is not easy.”

However, it says, “the time has come to take a look at our service and see what we can do better and if there is an option to provide the services in a more cost-effective manner for our residents and businesses while maintaining an adequate level of safety for our residents.”

It also says “in the event that we were to change the fire service, any adjustment would have to be achieved through negotiations with Local 531 or failing that through the arbitration service.”

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