Each day in downtown Vancouver and other municipalities in B.C, fire crews scream up and down the streets; gargantuan vehicles blasting air horns and sirens, reverberating off every nearby building. However, in all likelihood they are not heading to a fire. Actually there is a 70 per cent chance they are going to a medical call. How did we get to this state of confusion, where the fire department is taking ambulance calls?
The cost of these daily and nightly sojourns, with million dollar fire trucks, four or five fire personnel usually in tow, seems at the very least to be a misappropriation of resources. Most times they are going to a traffic accident, or to a downed individual suffering from too much alcohol, or too many drugs. They are of course usually joined by other fire vehicles, and maybe a supervisors vehicle for good measure. Upon arrival, they proceed to block multiple lanes of traffic, parking their vehicles and placing their traffic cones at 45 degrees, in different directions. Invariably, an ambulance will then attend as well.
The victims of an overdose or other medical issue is often dwarfed by the numbers of personnel and the towering vehicles parked in every direction. The fire personnel once relieved by the ambulance, often stand around, conversing with their fellow workers, seemingly unaware and unconcerned of the ensuing traffic jams, and usually in no apparent hurry to move on. The scene seems incongruous.
This is not a firefighters traditional mandate and now the use of firefighters to answer medical calls is beginning to garner attention in many financially strapped municipalities in the U.S. Even, in Canada, places like Toronto are re-assessing this perversion of the way these resources are used and shared with the traditional emergency health services community. They are quickly realizing that this abuse of scarce monetary resources needs to be addressed, that this is not a cost-effective way to use the fire departments.
In Vancouver, there are currently 20 Fire Halls, with a total of about 800 employees. By their own statistics 70% of their calls are now medical calls to individuals or to car accidents. How is that if fire calls have been declining to such a large degree, why are we not slowing down the growth of the fire department? It could be argued that we now need only 30% of what was needed many years ago.
Declining fire calls has led to the fire department, needing to justify itself in terms of resources, branching out into other territory. The route of least resistance was to grow toward was the medical call, or the call for rescue services.
So they have gradually embarked into other areas with developments like the “jaws of life” which gives them reasons to attend motor vehicle accidents, or carrying defibrillators, and training their staff to a higher level of medical expertise, which allows them to take medical calls. Coincidentally while fire calls were declining the Fire Department changed its name to the more expansive “Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services.
The fire department during this current Fentanyl crisis is using this as an opportunity to talk about their over growing workload, no time to train, complaining of “burnout”, even asking for further resources. One article extolled the need for an officer dedicated to dealing with PTSD for these over-worked fire personnel.
There is little dispute that medical calls are keeping some stations busy. At Firehall #2 in Vancouver, in the heart of the downtown Eastside, monthly calls have doubled in the last four years, and now amount to sometimes 20 calls per day on a 10 hour shift, or 30 calls per 14 hour night shift.
Certain halls are busy with these medical calls, but there are also many sleepy fire halls in the region. Fire halls in West Vancouver for instance would be hard pressed to complain about being over worked. I spoke with one West Van fireman who in 27 years had never been to a “structural fire”, although had been to many accidents and medical calls.
And these fire personnel are not cheap.
In an article in the Georgia Strait who obtained FOI information from the City of Vancouver with reference to fire department salaries they learned:
In 2013 Vancouver’s Fire Chief was the highest paid employee in the city with a salary of $347,762. (but was expected to decrease in 2014). There were approximately 125 fire personnel working under him that were making over $100,000.00 in 2013.
It should be noted that the overtime issue in B.C. runs across all emergency personnel lines, and is a singular problem in police services, paramedics and fire services. Paramedics, firefighters and police in B.C. are thanks to overtime, scooping up salaries well in excess of $100,000.00.
There is increasing attention being paid to the fact that modern equipment and new building materials is reducing the number of fires, and the costs of these fire departments are reaching astronomical levels.
Arbitrations are also keeping fire salaries high for one of the most under-worked professions. Often those salaries are in excess of the increases seen in other public sector jobs.
In smaller cities the Fire Department budget often amounts to a quarter of the overall budget.
Fire fighting has become a very desirable job, and firefighters rarely leave. Hundreds of applications are received every year for the few openings that come up.
Working conditions are good. Many firefighters having a second job because of the amount of downtime, and often have the luxury of sleeping during their night shifts. Twenty-four hour shifting is being used in some areas, or is often being pushed for by fire personnel. From a common sense perspective it seems illogical to be able to work a “24” hour shift, but of course it is possible in firefighting because of the extraordinary amount of downtime. They are often filling their downtime by preparing meals, working out, and polishing and servicing equipment. It is not uncommon to find them cruising in their big rigs and shopping for groceries or on a “patrol”through Kits beach.
In Toronto, in 2012, the city changed the protocols to send ambulances rather than firefighters to over 50 different types of medical emergencies. The next year the City staff recommended closing four halls and cutting 84 fire fighter jobs. While at the same time they hired an additional 56 paramedics who make a lesser salary, with an average of $65,000 in Canada.
A paramedic salary is lower than the average firefighter, as firefighters are designated as essential services in this Province, upping the ante in terms of salary bargaining.
Paramedics across Canada make between 65-$90,000. Ambulance vehicles run around $300,000 whereas fire trucks start about the same price and the larger trucks easily go over $1million.
Why this is not being done in British Columbia can partly be explained by the fact that there are two very different bureaucracies at work here. The city pays the Fire Personnel, while the Province pays the Paramedics. The two governments need to come together to work out a coherent untangling of mandates, and a cost sharing or savings sharing formula that is applied equitably. You would be increasing the direct costs to the Province but saving costs for the taxpayers of Vancouver. Some put back may be required from the City to the Province.
In November 2016 the BC Government put in another $5 million to the paramedics due to the Fentanyl crisis. However, if they truly want to make a difference and potentially save monies, we need to reduce the number of firefighters and close some of the halls, while at the same time increasing increase the number of paramedics and ambulances. Maybe not a 70% cut, as that would throw the fire department into paroxysms of fear, but but at least an effort must be made to get the need for fire services down to a number more reflective of the actual need for their services.
It is not news to fire department administrators, that the reduction of fires is a threat to their livelihood and job descriptions. Their ability to earn a substantial living is being threatened.
Is it time to go back to the original intention and mandate of the fire services? Reduce the number of firefighters, and reduce the ancillary major equipment such as $1million dollar fire trucks responding to calls. This is not a radical proposal, but one which will go against public perceptions. The media duly report every puppy rescued from a burning house (some fire trucks are carrying animal respirators – talk about branching out), cover every fire department fund raiser, and endlessly portray the firefighters as risking their lives, and of course promote their calendars.
So be prepared for the backlash. In Toronto the firefighters purchased ads on the local media all claiming of course that the government was putting “lives at risk”. Utter nonsense, as the firefighters themselves say they are merely filling the gap left by traditional ambulance services.
To recommend reducing the number of firefighters will be considered sacrilege, an attack on the emergency services world. I am just saying that we should hit the nail of the problem with a hammer, not with an expensive jack hammer. Everyone loves the image, but it is based on misperception and it is costly.
It is hallowed ground on which the firefighters walk, and you will need to be ready to hose down the flame throwing rhetoric that will come from the affected who will argue that you are “risking” the lives of your fellow citizens. I too am in favour of fire personnel, but we just don’t need that many of them.
** On March 9, 2017 the BC Government announced a $91.4 million funding boost for emergency services, which will go to 6 new ambulances, and 60 new paramedics. I suspect this may have something to do with the election, and not my blog post. Of course there is no cutback on the fire department, that would not do in an election period. **
Image courtesy of Liz West via Creative Commons licence Some Rights Reserved