At issue: the four-firefighter minimum

The Clarington firefighters’ union was fighting fire with fire at a special council meeting last month, handing out a package of questions and answers to support its point of view, unbeknownst to the municipal fire chief, who was there to present a report on firefighter staffing. While both the union and the chief share concerns about safety, their differing interpretations of safety guidelines have left Council waiting for more answers.

Is the “four-firefighter minimum” a standard that the Clarington Emergency and Fire Services department (CEFS) should follow, or is it an ideal that just isn’t practical for this municipality at this time? That is the question facing Clarington Council. And it is not as simple as it may sound.

In fact, there are lots of issues swirling around this basic question: not just safety but also liability; full-time firefighters versus part-time firefighters; the status quo versus best practices; big city standards versus rural realities; and the impact of it all on Clarington’s budget and, ultimately, on taxpayers.

These issues come on the heels of a report submitted by Fire Chief Gord Weir, entitled “Implications of a Minimum of Four Firefighters on a Fire Truck,” presented March 10th at a special council meeting to discuss the Strategic Plan. Weir produced the report at the request of Councillor Willie Woo, who said he asked for an information report because “the firefighters’ union has been lobbying to have the minimum number of firefighters on a fire truck raised from three to four.”

Council needs to understand what the implications of meeting that minimum would be, said Woo. “The purpose of the report was to see how we can meet the standard with our present staffing,” he stated. According to Chief Weir’s report, it can be done, but there will be costs.

Currently, Weir’s staff includes: 44 full-time firefighters, four full-time firefighter/dispatchers, 125 part-time firefighters, and 10 administrative staff (consisting of four fire prevention officers, two clerks, a training officer, a maintenance person, and two deputy chiefs).

The full-time firefighters are divided between the Bowmanville (Station 1) and the Courtice (Station 4) fire halls, which are manned 24 hours a day/7 days a week. Both full-time stations have a pumper truck and Bowmanville also staffs a SCAT truck when staffing levels permit. The four firefighter/dispatchers are also based in Bowmanville 24/7. Then there are 25 part-time firefighters assigned to each of the five Clarington stations: Bowmanville, Courtice, Newcastle, Orono, and Enniskillen. Part-time or volunteer firefighters are paid “on call when available.”

The SCAT truck, while it carries no water or fire pumps, is crewed by two firefighters and responds behind the pumpers to all emergency calls. It is also used for “check calls”, such as carbon monoxide calls, medical calls, and burning complaints, when sending a fully staffed pumper would be a waste of resources.

In his report, Weir summarized the fire department’s history, and how it came to its current staffing levels. The CEFS uses a four-platoon system for the 48 full-timers, with eleven firefighters and one dispatcher assigned to each platoon. With lieu days, vacations, training, and sick days, it can go down to a minimum platoon staffing of six firefighters and one firefighter/dispatcher spread between the Bowmanville and Courtice stations. Once on-duty staff is below seven, overtime is required.

Once platoon staffing drops to 10 (or lower) – using the current staffing plan of four firefighters on the Bowmanville pumper truck, two on the SCAT truck, and one on dispatch – the Courtice station is down to three firefighters on its pumper truck. At the minimum platoon staffing level of six firefighters and one dispatcher, both the Bowmanville pumper and the Courtice pumper would have only three firefighters per truck.

Advocating for a four-firefighter minimum on a truck, Clarington Professional Firefighters Association (CPFA) Local 3139 president Dan Worrall cited three agencies that he claims are in support of the union stance: the Ontario Fire Marshal (OFM), and the U.S.-based National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA). Quoting from the OFM’s website, Worrall pointed out that with a three-person crew, “Interior rescue and suppression operations should not be attempted except in limited circumstances.” Furthermore, Worrall wanted to remind Council that Bill C-45, an act to amend the Criminal Code of Canada in 2004, now places legal liability on organizations, including public bodies such as municipalities, to take reasonable measures to protect employee and public safety.

“We never just send three,” countered Weir when reached by the Times, noting that the three-firefighter minimum refers to staffing the pumper truck, not to the minimum size of the firefighting crew that responds to a call. “Even four, we don’t send just four,” he said. “There are multiple resources responding. We staff primarily two pumpers, with six or seven firefighters, and the SCAT with two firefighters. Most of the time it’s a crew of 11, but we go as low as six [plus one dispatcher].”

In his report, Weir stated that the recognized U.S. staffing standard did not refer to the pumper truck, “The NFPA ‘1710,’ an American document, provided minimum requirements for staffing an engine company or truck company. That standard sets requirements for the number of personnel required per company, not per apparatus. Therefore, if a company is composed of two or more engines, it can staff each engine with two personnel, as long as the company contains a minimum of four personnel continually operating together. Since most jurisdictions deploy one engine or truck per company, most jurisdictions must staff each engine or truck with a minimum of four personnel.”

Weir also noted Clarington’s 2003 Master Fire Plan, which provided recommendations with respect to staffing, apparatus and stations. The Plan was updated in 2008, providing recommendations for hiring firefighters, purchasing apparatus, and constructing new fire stations, to support Municipal growth to the year 2020.  However, Weir pointed out, no full-time fire suppression staff was hired during the years 2007-2010.

“The Fire Plan was moving along until last Council,” Weir told the Orono Times last week. “The last Council didn’t hire for four years. That put us a little behind the eight ball. The new Newcastle build was supposed to be in 2010, and staffed in 2011. We were still always looking at four men on a truck, giving us a full-time pumper in Bowmanville, Courtice, and Newcastle. And with continued hiring, we would have seen extra manpower. The intent was always trying to move towards 10 men in 10 minutes.”

The “10-in-10” standard of the OFM was a goal set in the Fire Plan. Weir said it was close to being accomplished at the stations along the lakeshore, but not in places like Kendal and Enniskillen, where lower call volumes, fewer volunteers, and larger geographical distances conspired to create difficulties.

The OFM’s “10-in-10” guidelines were replaced by its newer counterpart, the “Operational Planning Document: An Official Guide to Matching Resource Deployment and Risk,” released in January 2011. “We’re just in the process of going through it now,” Weir said of the new guidelines, adding that Council has given his department until May 9th to report on the document.

In his report, Weir concluded that staffing a minimum of four firefighters per pumper truck will mean a recalculation of the implementation of the hiring schedule laid out in the 2008 Fire Master Plan Update. It will also mean less effective use of resources, reducing the number of responses by the SCAT truck, and increasing the number of responses by the pumper. The Chief said the Department’s overtime budget would be impacted, conservatively estimating $176,000 in overtime to maintain the four-firefighter minimum. He also warned that the new minimum would delay the future full-time staffing of the new Newcastle station, despite the fact that the town’s call volumes justify a move towards full-time.

Can Clarington afford to go to the “four-firefighter minimum”? According to the CPFA’s local president Worrall, the question should be: Can Clarington afford not to? “There are two basic reasons why we are pushing for the four-firefighter minimum,” said Worrall. “First is for the safety of the people that we serve. Second is for our own safety.”

When asked if it wasn’t also part of the union’s agenda to press for more full-time firefighters, Worrall was unequivocal, “Fires double in size every five minutes. I don’t care if they’re full-time or part-time, the sooner people are on the ground, the better. Sometimes, as dedicated as part-timers are, they’re unable to get a truck out, they don’t have enough people. Part-timers are very vital to what we do. It’s not a slander against part-timers. Every full-timer came from part-time. They’re our friends and neighbours.”

District Fire Chief Dave Forrester, in command of Orono’s part-time firefighters, said there have been times in the past when they couldn’t get the truck out due to insufficient manpower, noting that since other stations also respond to the fire call, “there is always help on the way.”

“There was an incident on Highway 115, a car fire, about five or six years ago,” recalled Forrester. He said the lack of staff had to do with an imbalance in the number of volunteers working on the same shift, and the problem no longer exists as the Department has hired to cover that issue.

“We now have an average of 9.8 firefighters responding out of 25 per call,” he reported. “I’ve been tracking our call numbers. We’ve had 56 calls [so far this year] up until approximately the 18th of March, and we’ve been averaging 9.8 responders. Sometimes we have more, sometimes we have less.”

Forrester acknowledged that, so far this year, there have been about three times when the pumper went out staffed with only three firefighters. But, he added, the pumper was followed by a couple of firefighters on the tanker, “so there were five going out altogether.” The tanker is the second vehicle out, after the pumper, if it is a structure fire, he said. It carries about 1500 U.S. gallons of water and is usually staffed by two or three firefighters, but can be staffed by one, according to Forrester.

“I do believe in a perfect world, if we could roll out of the station with six, we’d be better off,” he said. “But we do it as safely as we can.  It’s do-able. With three firefighters to a structure fire, there’s more work to be done. The busier you are, the more problems you can run into.

“But we would respond to any fire,” continued the volunteer district chief. “If we got to a fire and the Captain deemed it safe and necessary to enter a building, we would do that. If deemed not necessary and unsafe to enter a building, we would not enter a building with three people. If it was safe and there were people who were rescue-able, we would rescue them and then not go back into that building until we had more manpower. The more firefighters, the safer it is.”

At a recent house fire in Orono, the part-time Orono crew was first on the scene, with five on the pumper, followed by three on the tanker. “We had eight men there within the first few moments of our arrival,” he said. Pumpers from Newcastle and Bowmanville arrived a short time later, for a total of approximately 20-21 firefighters. “That’s a good response,” stated Forrester.

“Running with three people, we’ve done it here and it can be done,” he said. “But it would be smoother and easier if we had four people on the truck. The bare minimum is three.”

Union president Worrall equated the effect of the current three-firefighter minimum to playing through a penalty in a hockey game. “There are certain things we can do with three people, and certain things we can do with four. It’s like a hockey team with five people plus a goalie. If a player’s put in the penalty box, the team is not able to do the same job.

“We are the only department in Durham Region that runs with a three-man crew. Chief Weir has said that no other department is a composite department [with both full-timers and part-timers], but Whitby, Ajax, and Pickering were all composite departments in the past decade, and they all maintained a minimum crew size of four,” Worrall told the Times.

“We are 25 percent less effective than other Durham Region fire departments,” he maintained. In regards to the “10 firefighters in 10 minutes” standard, Worrall cited a report by Clarington’s Deputy Chief Mark Berney, which according to Worrall, indicated that of the 17 structure fires between Jan. 1 and Oct. 19, 2010 in the Courtice response area, six (or 35 percent of calls) were not able to meet the “10-in-10” guideline, and four (or 24 percent of the calls) were not able to sufficiently staff to the requirements of the “10-in-10” guidelines.

“What we’re providing is a lower level of service, 25 percent lower,” Worrall said. “With the Master Fire Plan, we were supposed to grow. We cover over 250 square miles of property in Clarington. We’ve had tremendous support from other firefighters who work outside of Clarington but are Clarington taxpayers. They know what we require to operate sufficiently.

“We have to educate people. In newer neighbourhoods in Newcastle, these people have come out of the GTA, they pick up the phone and dial 911, and someone shows up. I don’t think the people know that it is staffed by ‘part-time on call when available.’

“We understand we’re always going to have part-time. There’s no way in the future that we’ll be able to look after the municipality without part-timer firefighters. We just want to ensure we grow together. We were all part-time once, it’s not like we forget where we came from,” he said.

Ultimately, the various voices of the part-timers, the full-timers and the Chief, all agree on two things. First of all, CEFS’s part-timers and full-timers will be working together for a long time to come. And secondly, it will be up to Council to make the final decision on staffing levels.

“It’s up to Council to determine the level of service. We hope they understand,” said Worrall. Chief Weir’s report cited the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, which states that it is the responsibility of Council to set the level of service it deems necessary.

“If Council determines a minimum staffing of four firefighters per pumper truck is warranted, it can be accomplished with current staff levels.” he stated. “There will however be increased overtime costs and a reduction in service levels as a result of the SCAT truck being regularly removed from service. Full-time firefighters in Newcastle will also be delayed.” That is assuming that Council intends to hold down taxes. While the issue smoulders, it is yet to be seen whether or not it will burn a hole in taxpayers’ pockets.

For links to the NIST report, go to the CPFA website: http://www.claringtonfirefighters.com

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