By Heather Abrey
Kitchener Post staff
Emergency services across the country have been feeling the money crunch, with both the Waterloo Regional Police Service and Kitchener Fire Department running up against the budgetary concerns of local politicians.
At a recent budget discussion, city council asked fire chief Tim Beckett to cut $480,000 from the $29.6-million proposed 2013 budget by cutting four firefighter positions through attrition.
City councillors have been questioning the increasingly large fire budget for quite some time, and last year asked not for a budget decrease, but a smaller-than-requested increase.
In 2012, the fire department’s budget made up nearly 30 per cent of the city’s net budget at $29.3 million, according to city staff. But how does that stack up against other municipalities?
In Waterloo, the net fire budget in 2012 was just over $16 million and accounted for nearly 28 per cent of the city’s budget, according to Karen Eskens, Waterloo’s acting chief financial officer.
The Cambridge department’s budget, at more than $18 million in 2012, makes up about 27 per cent of that city’s budget.
While the impact on net budgets is similar throughout the three municipalities, the Ontario government’s municipal performance measurement program compared cities by cost per household. By that measure, Kitchener Fire cost the least per household, coming in just below Waterloo and below the provincial average. Both cost about $350 per household, while Cambridge is above the provincial average, costing more than $400 per household.
In addition, a Brantford Fire Department survey of 20 Ontario municipalities found that Kitchener had the fourth-lowest ratio of firefighters to population at one per 1,223 residents — lower than both Cambridge and Waterloo.
“Given the size of our municipality compared to the size of our department, I would say that we are efficient yet effective for the size of municipality that we serve,” said Beckett.
“I think we face challenges that are no different than most other departments out there — that being the rising cost of fire services. Costs continue to escalate right across the province, but at the same time, so does the demand on service.”
Calls for service have been escalating across the province, according to Beckett, though calls in Kitchener have plateaued over the last several years. In 2011, Kitchener Fire dealt with 9,554 calls and were on the scene in seven minutes or less 90 per cent of the time. Cambridge firefighters responded to a total of 5,715 calls in 2011.
Kitchener firefighters respond to medical calls in order to help regional paramedics meet their mandated response times.
“The goal, regionally, is to have trained personnel on scene as quickly as we can,” he said. “Fire has traditionally had a response model that allows us a fast response time.”
About 96 per cent of the Kitchener fire department’s budget goes to staffing costs, such as salaries, benefits and overtime, according to a report to council. Across the province, many municipalities face firefighter contract disputes that have gone to arbitration. Salary increases awarded through arbitration often outstrip those in negotiated contracts.
Firefighters also receive retention pay, also known as experience or recognition pay, that, on top of arbitrated increases, awards them a three per cent salary increase after eight years of service, six per cent after 17 years and nine per cent after 23 years.
On top of staff costs, fire services must deal with changing provincially legislated mandates.
Currently, the Fire Protection and Prevention Act requires fire departments to provide public education programs, fire prevention through code enforcement and suppression.
Every few years, Kitchener Fire conducts a risk assessment, through which they determine what groups to target most with education and prevention programs. Kids and seniors are high on the list.
Seniors’ residences are also being targeted for preemptive fire code enforcement. Most other buildings are inspected on a request or complaint basis.
“We don’t have the staffing, nor can the city afford the staffing (to inspect every building), but that’s where our public education and our fire prevention programs combined have to get the messaging out there,” said Beckett.
“When we’ve tried to mitigate the risk as much as we can, stuff will still happen. We see it out there, I won’t say on a daily basis, but on a regular basis where crews have to go out and mitigate fire.
“I would love to get it to the point where we have zero fires in the community and we have zero fire deaths in the community. I’m knocking on wood because we’ve been very fortunate the last couple of years that we haven’t seen a fire death in the city.”
Number of calls in 2011
Total calls: 9,554
• Medical calls: 5,000
• False alarms: 1,350
• Pre-fire conditions: 500
• Fires: 282
Total calls: 5,715
• Fires: 315
Part one in a series on firefighting in Kitchener.