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Lack of discussion about regionalized fire service

Politicians more worried about loss of power than providing most efficient service to residents, says Lorentz

By Heather Abrey
Kitchener Post staff

Fear of losing control is the main reason there is a lack of political will to discuss regionalizing fire services, despite recent calls from the Kitchener Firefighters Association to discuss the matter, according to Kitchener regional councillor Geoff Lorentz.

The municipalities of Waterloo Region, which each have their own fire department, are currently moving forward on regionalizing dispatch services, so all calls go to a single dispatch centre regardless of which city the emergency is in. However, there has been no move to investigate whether regionalizing fire services as a whole would be appropriate.

“What we want to do as firefighters is discuss it,” said Rob Martin, an executive with the union that represents firefighters in Kitchener. “We don’t have the answers; we don’t know if it would be a better option, but we know that they have sat down and started to discuss the dispatch side of things and to us that makes sense. If you have issues that arise and things aren’t working right, you get everyone together and you sit down and discuss it.”

Martin said there are well-known systemic concerns with the way fire response is organized in the municipalities that make up Waterloo Region. And, while a regionalized dispatch shaves seconds off emergency response, those seconds are sometimes lost because the closest station, which may be in another municipality, doesn’t always respond. Also, if concerns about the large fire budget eventually lead to staff or equipment cuts, those could nullify any gains made by a central dispatch, he said.

Lorentz agreed, pointing to a new development in the Ira Needles area as an example. Half the property lies in Waterloo and half in Kitchener, he said. If a fire occurs on the Waterloo side, Kitchener firefighters can’t respond, even if they’re closer.

“Right now there are mutual-aid agreements,” said Martin, “ which means that the fire department from that municipality or township arrives on scene. If they deem that they need assistance they can request it, and we would certainly provide it. But they have to get there first.”

Lorentz believes there’s money to be saved in the creation of a regional fire service. Currently, police, ambulance and transit are all region-wide services.

While Martin can’t say for sure if money would be saved, both he and Lorentz agreed that service would likely improve.

“I don’t know for sure if the regionalization of our fire departments would save costs. But you could extrapolate from the fact that if you’re going to regionalize dispatch and it will save costs, it probably will save costs the other way,” Martin said. “We don’t know that for sure, but I know that it will improve the service. It will be a value added for the customers because times will reduce. And that’s really what it should be about: life saving, not cost saving.”

When the issue went to the ballot, Mayor Carl Zehr was a proponent of amalgamation. He is in support of regionalizing emergency dispatch, but doesn’t think it’s feasible to continue to regionalize individual services like fire.

“There has been no political discussion about this. I think that, in a perfect world, [regionalizing fire] may be the route to go,” he said.

“We are at a point in the current governance situation where you cannot continue to cherry pick individual services with the intent of amalgamating an individual service, because there are a whole array of issues that come in. Some of them are financial and some are not . . .

“If you extract fire from the cities, as an example ours, where the fire costs are about 29 per cent of our expenditures. And that ultimately makes the local municipalities impossible to function from an overhead and an administrative standpoint.”
Lorentz feels that politicians lack appetite for regionalizing fire services out of territoriality.

“In my opinion, it’s because when you take away a large service like fire service, the municipal council look and says, ‘Well gee, we just lost a big chunk of how we do business,’” he said, noting that many people get nervous about amalgamation, whether it’s for individual services or the region as a whole.

“All it is, is trying to provide the best service at the best price for the taxpayer. That’s who you’re supposed to be representing. Everybody’s best interest at heart, not your own. But I think, unfortunately . . . a lot of people are very concerned about their own possibilities of not being able to get re-elected or losing their autonomy,” he said.

“Everybody just kind of wants to protect their own territory, whatever is left. I think that’s what it boils down to.”

This is the second part in a series about
firefighting in Kitchener.

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