Budget Committee, March 3, 2021
Meeting recap (the important stuff):
The Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Services budget passed through Budget Committee unanimously, so it’ll be included in the budget when that comes up to council for approval at the end of this budget process.
Chief Stuebing gave an update to councillors on where the fire department is compared to the rest of the country. He said the city falls behind in its response time to fires because of how the city is laid out. Instead of fire trucks responding by converging on a call, trucks frequently form a spaced-out convoy. This is due in large part to the city’s geography, but also inadequate planning for city growth. Stuebing’s team is now integrating better with Kelly Denty’s team at city planning in order to better address this issue. The fire department is also working with Denty’s team to make sure buildings are better designed for firefighters to go into burning buildings, not just for people to get out.
The other reason the fire department has trouble meeting the standards for call response is due to antiquated technology used in dispatch. They’re in the process of upgrading this.
The city’s fire services also face a chronic staffing shortage. The issue is twofold, career (read full-time salaried) firefighter hiring was placed on hold due to COVID. They were able to make up the staffing shortfall in this budget, with the addition of 12 new positions, which will be hired in August. But the other issue is that our city relies on volunteer firefighters which are chronically underfilled positions. A lot of current volunteers are ageing out, and don’t want to be paid, they’re just happy to be filling a need in the community. Although if people of younger generations are working two or three jobs just to barely keep up with living expenses, even if they wanted to, could they afford the time to volunteer? Especially knowing that some of the calls would be highly traumatic? There was talk of adding auxiliary or part-time firefighters to help fill this gap.
Halifax Regional Fire and & Emergency have also been assisting with COVID testing since December. Career firefighters interested in helping have been offered shifts, compensated with overtime pay, to perform nasal swab testing alongside the Nova Scotia Health Authority.
(We got this wrong. Our initial reporting read as follows: “Other notable things from this meeting, unlike the police who require overtime to go to court which is an integral part of their job, firefighters have been volunteering to help with the city’s COVID testing.”)
Halifax Fire is also getting a firefight boat that can stay in the water year round, unlike their current boat which can’t be in the harbour over the winter.
And finally, the fire department has a program where they’re setting up qualifying facilities with generators to be opened as comfort centres in the case of a massive emergency. If you think you have a facility that would qualify and you want to help in a time of need, you can volunteer to be part of a JEM team by calling 902-490-4213. In an emergency, if you need to find a comfort centre, you can find information at @hfxgov on Twitter and @hfxmoments on Instagram and by calling 311. You can also sign up to receive alerts here.
Who said what (paraphrased):
Russell: Welcome to the meeting, fire and emergency services today, public engagement, Brendan is up.
Brendan Meagher: I’m the president of Halifax Professional Firefighters Association, I’ve been a firefighter for 24 years and worked all of the HRM. We’re an integral part of emergency services in this city and we want to make sure our members get home safely. We’ve been working with management to help with COVID testing. We’re proud of what we do, and I’m speaking with you today to tell you the value of the service we provide. We need to take a long term view and my message is urgent, which I said in my email last night. Our fire chief advocates for service delivery. I asked for six things last, at least four people per truck, five in places with high calls. We should have more staff if we’re not meeting key performance indicators. The peninsula has four stations with 18 firefighters. West Street station used to have 20 plus in that station alone. A single family home fire on the peninsula drains all the resources on the peninsula. The fire in Sackville last week drew resources from all the HRM and it was just a family home.
Russell: You’re out of time.
Meagher: My letter is quite detailed, please read it, and I’m happy to answer any questions.
Outhit: As long as I’ve been on council there’s been an issue with four per truck, and we’ve been passing legislation to make it four per truck, but you’re saying you don’t have four per truck, what’s up?
Meagher: The four per truck has been an issue since amalgamation until recently. We just don’t want to lose sight of it. We’ve seen in lean times that it could lead to less than four per truck, and this is looking like lean times. Apologies if it seems redundant, it’s just a serious issue.
Lovelace: You know my issues, Blackpoint only has two firefighters per truck, if it’s in the policy, are you suggesting our policy isn’t being followed? That firefighters are going out solo?
Meagher: Our collective agreement signed in 2000, we switched to straight time overtime, and following that there wasn’t a commitment to staff trucks when overtime was required, outside of the core of the city. We signed an MOU in 2016 to not keep up with police wages so we could staff fire trucks with four per truck. There are two stations now that run without four per, but everyone else does. Our collective agreement is up, so we’ll be looking to make sure the four people per truck requirement is still in there.
Ken Stubing: Hello! I have a team here to help me, I’m supportive of the comments made by our president. We’re still working on our strategic plan, COVID slowed us down because we were in our community consultation phase at the time. We’re going to be changing our mission as part of this process, here’s the mission:
Stuebing: We do three main things, prevention stuff, like building inspections, education, etc. Our second thing is emergency response, which is where most of our people work. And our third is performance and safety, we need to make sure we’re performing efficiently and safely. We want to be a data driven organization, and keep our members safe. The other thing we do is strategic initiatives and projects, like using our data to make better policies for responding to fires. We also do wildland fire suppression. Here’s some stats:
Stuebing: We have a vacancy problem because we haven’t been managing it well. We’re struggling to recruit volunteers or keep volunteers. Military members who are volunteer firefighters get posted or deployed, for example. We’ve launched a diversity and inclusion action plan, we’re well into our five year road map. We had 32 volunteers trained up. We qualified 20 firefighters in Building Collapse, and we’re part of Heavy Urban Search and Rescue, we’re one of six teams in Canada. We’re working with the COVID-19 task force. We stood up a task force to help the city’s business units identify if their workplaces were COVID safe. Williamswood station is a new hybrid 24/7 staffing model. We’ll probably want to tweak things after we work this hybrid model for a bit. Williamswood has a community space which can be used by members of the community, and it can be a shelter in an emergency, personal emergency (escaping an unsafe home) or large emergency (storm), it has a locking door and access to 911. We help with COVID testing when there’s need for more, we have firefighters doing COVID testing right now. Those firefighters volunteered for the extra duty. Here’s our plans:
Stuebing: We’re working to make sure our fleet changes with the times, electric vehicles for example. We’re working to decrease our insurance costs by getting updated accreditation. I wanted to have our annual report to you today, but we needed to change some things. I’ll be giving you some of that data today, but the full report won’t be for a bit. We’re making some progress on our diversity and inclusion initiatives. We’re trying to be a leader, not just in community response, but for the communities we serve. We’re implementing data analysis. We’re doing virtual public education. We’re also using drones to help fight wildland fires when helicopters can’t fly, usually at night. We’re much cheaper than other municipalities, our volunteers help. Other municipalities have fewer or no volunteers. Our fire related fatalities per 100,000 are lower this year but were higher in previous years. Our fire related injuries are lower per 100,000 people. We’re above average for losing houses to fire per 1,000 homes. We think this year is down because more people are at home and notice and prevent fires, but we don’t really know. Here’s how we performed:
Stuebing: The blue dots are where we hit our targets, the red ones are where we do not. I don’t feel like we’re prepared for the growth of the city, and we’re not mature enough as a department to do predictive analysis to plan for growth. Our dispatch time is too slow, we’re working to fix that. Three minutes into a call before the trucks leave the station. Our tech is old, and we need to alert a lot of stations with old tech. Our dispatch tech is like seven switches for seven lights, instead of one switch for seven lights (I can turn on all of my lights with my Google Home, not to brag). In responding to a fire, we leave a lot of stations empty. We’d like to hire 12 firefighters to help fix our response time, which we can do with our budget. They’d start training in August. The first two would go to Blackpoint. Here’s some inspection numbers:
Stuebing: Our firefighters do inspections when they’re not fighting fires. We were supposed to roll out more inspections this year, but couldn’t because of COVID. We need to inspect a place more than once to close a file. We’re looking to add two new fire inspectors because we’re falling behind in inspections. We can do this with our current budget. Here is our budget:
Stuebing: Our biggest challenge is vacancies. We couldn’t fill them with our recast budget, so we filled the gap with overtime. Here’s the breakdown of the budget by service area:
Stuebing: Here’s our staffing:
Stuebing: Here’s the changes to our budget:
Stuebing: And that’s it. (No budget overs for the ‘parking lot’, we might be done by lunch? Did I just jinx this? Probably.)
Mancini: *Reads the motion for agenda item 5 as written* The fire in Sackville, the injured firefighter, how’s he doing?
Stuebing: Everyone’s back to work, there were some concerns. They did the work required prior to the mayday (being in danger) so they were able to get him out. This is a dangerous job, even when you do things right, it can go bad.
Mancini: Congrats on the COVID budget, I have no problem with your budget today. The effective firefighting and growth, we’re growing and high rises are going up. Port Wallace is potentially 10,000 people, Shannon Park 7,500 people. The fact that you’re not prepared for the growth is concerning. I’m thinking we need a long-term strategy for effective firefighting. Everyone loves firefighters, but we need to balance priorities. Are we going to get an actual strategy for effective firefighting with our growth? We need a long term view of firefighting.
Stuebing: Difficult to answer, but it’s like deciding you want to build a house. You have a vision that’s picture-perfect, but you can’t start framing the roof before you lay the foundation. You’ve given us a good foundation in the Administrative Order, and you’ve also outlined emergency response time targets. But our firefighting services were based on an urban model. The way our city is laid out, and the way our roads are, we have built-in inefficiencies. Units aren’t converging on a call, they’re more like a convoy. And we’re starting in a hole, we’re already behind best practices. In most places the standard is four minutes, ours is five. The good news is we have a good AO and framework, but the bad news is that we’re not hitting the targets. So we need to evaluate the station locations, how many staff we have, and where we put them. We maintain four per truck, but sometimes we have one too many, we should use them better. We also didn’t know this before we started collecting data. Now we can figure out where to put extra firefighters. I don’t know if this fully answers the question, but when we come back to council with the consultant’s report we’ll have better answers.
Cleary: I liked your map of the blue and red dots, I think that’s the legacy of our sprawl and car-based growth plans of the past. The police also have target response times, but they present to us the crime rates, and violent crimes, etc. Are there similar severity stats for fire? The response times are a process to help us get to the outcome, which is to prevent injury and death. Do we have an idea of the outcomes?
Stuebing: That’s why we want to become accredited, so we can get that data. There are performance metrics associated with getting accredited. It’s also why we use the MBN data, that’s where the first few slides came from. Those are some examples, but we want to know more. Our restrictions aren’t our desire to know this, but the technology required to better collect this data. My vision for the annual report isn’t a glossy 30 page compilation of stories, it’ll be analytics. Our first will be both though because we don’t have enough analytics.
Cleary: The composite model and “volunteer” firefighters, they get paid an honorarium. Do you think people aren’t volunteering because they think it’s not paid? (It’s probably not wanting to see violently dismembered bodies in car crashes, tbh, that’s my reason anyway.)
Stuebing: We had a similar model where I came from and we asked our volunteers if they’d want money and it was a 50/50 response. Some were offended that they were asked if they wanted to be paid, and some people felt they were part of the organization and wanted to be paid for it.
Meldrum: The chief answered it well, we have $2,000,000 in honoraria, and we have a bit extra money for stipends for officers and a hundred dollars here and there for members. We pay it out in November. Most of our volunteers were more interested in a sense of community and belonging to the group. The opportunity to be engaged and stimulated by things they wouldn’t do at home. But we’re working to figure it out for sure.
Lovelace: What I’m hearing is that we don’t have a firm long term strategy for growth, and like where you’re taking the dept. Unfortunately, we’re in a situation where we need to look backwards to move forwards. We need to make sure residents are part of the community evacuation planning. It’s not enough to just have two firefighters on shift at Blackpoint. I’m pleased to see the movement on M200, but my question is around the KPI slide on urban emergency response times. There’s no rural response time, do we have the data? What are rural response times?
Stuebing: Our response time for volunteers is six minutes plus travel. There’s no standard for rural because it’s based on travel time. The industry best practice is ‘base it on community risk.’ We don’t know how we’ve done on community risk, because we don’t know how Sheet Harbour is panning out yet. But we identify risk, and historic response times, and resources available in order to identify community risk. Right now, we don’t have the capability to figure out our volunteer response because sometimes they show up in their personal vehicle. So we don’t just know they’re there. We have to manually confirm and enter that data. We hope to have a way to capture that electronically. We’re years away from that capability.
Savage: Growth, nobody’s prouder of our growth than I am. Every week we do these meetings we learn that something is the most important thing, libraries, police (eeeehhhh). Fire budget is growing more than the city’s and it’s a challenge to see budgets going up. I have no problem with your budget, and you’re hiring new firefighters, what’s next year’s budget going to look like?
Stuebing: Hard to predict the future, but we expect less overtime. The $2 million in overtime will probably be able to offset any cost increases in salary. But we’re in contract negotiations, so that could change a bit. But overall less budget pressure.
Savage: How are we doing in diversifying our fire service? Do you have targets?
Stuebing: We’re not where we want to be. We want to be representative of our community. We’re changing our culture to make people see it as a place they want to be part of, but we still have work to do.
Savage: If you have a chance to go to Camp Courage, you should.
Meldrum: It’s top of mind, diversity and inclusion, you can’t have one without the other. We don’t have self-identification data so we can truly find out who we are. We’re close in some places, visibly racial people, but we’re way behind in 2SLGBTQ+, women, and people with disabilities. It’s dangerous work, so everyone needs to pass the test to be able to do the work, but we’re working to make it more equitable. We also need to work on inclusion, because there’s no point hiring for diversity if they don’t feel welcome here.
Outhit: The response times visual was helpful. We have growing areas in the suburbs and rural areas. Equipment, more high rises out of the urban areas, that’ll change our equipment needs I think? The ICT upgrades, what impact will that have on your services exactly? I just want to make sure that people understand we’re meeting the initial response quickly, it’s the complete response that’s missing. Every year I mention this, we have $3,000 a year volunteers, and career firefighters earning $100,000 a year. Is it time to have auxiliary or part-time firefighters? Is that possible? Especially in our rural areas when volunteers aren’t available? There’s gotta be something between $3,000 and $100,000.
Stuebing: The ICT, although the projects will be slowed down, the critical projects are moving forward. Station alerting, that’s the light switch analogy. There’s tech that helps the computer-aided dispatch. It streamlines the dispatch process so it’s much quicker. There’s tech that can make the station response quicker, automatically turning lights on and opening doors, turning all the TVs on with the information they need (basic smart home tech). Sometimes the buildings themselves are designed poorly. Fall River used to have stairs that led away from the trucks. It could shave thirty seconds off our time. The other tech piece is switching to dispatch by truck type, not location. Making sure the right people and vehicles go to the fires, not just the closest. And in doing this it can track where trucks are, so if another truck is closer it’ll get sent, even if it’s in the wrong zone. The emergency response time is just for confirmed structure fires. Open burn or medical have different standards. Part of the reason we think our performance has dropped is because our medical calls are down so we’re out and about less, and due to COVID we were out and about less. If you’re driving around in a truck you can just go to a fire, but if you’re in a station you need to gear up and go. The hybrid model of paying people would have to be done in-camera because we’re in contract negotiation, but it’s also challenged by fair pay for fair work.
Russell: Lunch, back at 1 p.m.
*Recessed until 1 p.m.*
Russell: And we’re back.
Deagle-Gammon: On some of the slides with the key performance indicators, the arrows up and down, what the numbers being compared to? The volunteer stations, 22 stations, 490 volunteers, people think we’re at a crisis in level of volunteers. How do the paid volunteers work in the hybrid model? The percentage of budget dedicated to volunteers, $2 million, are there any metrics to say whether that’s appropriate or not? How does the cost break down? Is in-kind payment like training included? I think we may need to invest more in our volunteers. In community risk reduction, the increase of $1.675 million, what is that? Is it over or under? Where are partner agreements represented in the budget?
Stuebing: The cost breakdown of community risk reduction, that’s on the summary of changes slide, $120,000 going back into the budget for PPE that was taken out in the recast budget. The numbers came from a three year analysis, and we’re taken out in the recast budget. There’s a general equipment number of $153,000, to repair things. We don’t have a capital asset management strategy, so we fix things when they break. We’re increasing mental health assets for volunteers and career members. There’s money going into training as well. The arrows, underneath each arrow is a little table, and it’s the year over year average. It’s the change between the 2019 number, either up or down in performance.
Deagle-Gammon: The math doesn’t check out.
Stuebing: I botched this too, had to brush off my stats textbook. It’s a drop in performance stats, not the actual drop. *Off camera: It’s the percentage change* Here’s Andrews to talk about volunteers.
Deputy Chief Andrews: I deal with the employing volunteers. Our current model relies on volunteers, recruiting is challenging, we’re always trying to improve. We staff up in storms, for example. We backfill core stations so career firefighters can do training.
Deputy Chief Meldrum: An estimation of value that volunteers provide and what that translates to in dollar values, I’ve done some napkin math and our volunteer compensation would be less than 5 per cent of our current budget. They provide primary service for rural areas. Recruiting volunteers is a continuing challenge, unlike other volunteer opportunities, this one is very demanding, difficult, and dangerous. It’s a challenge we’re trying to overcome.
Hendsbee: What’s the status of Hubbards, Enfield, and Ecum Secum’s mutual response agreement? What’s our readiness for wildland fires? What’s our PPE situation for volunteers? How are EMO, ESAR and GEM teams going? Happy to see Sheet Harbour going in tandem to the community centre. I’d like to see the career firefighters be members of the community, not commuters. Is it time for a sprinkler bylaw?
Stuebing: We’re in contract mutual aid agreement negotiations with Enfield, we can’t speak publicly about them, we put out a post last night on that. No change with Ecum Secum, but we’re reviewing all of our agreements. We’ve had fruitful discussions with Hubbards, and are operating in principle, except for maybe moving Hubbards dispatch back, but negotiations are ongoing there too, but it’d be an improvement. Wildland urban interface is a risk that keeps me up at night, I’m thankful for it being a wet winter (the way we build our homes make it far more likely that wildfires will tear through them instead of our yards acting like fire breaks). We’re in collaboration with the province to start a fire smart program to operate out of our rural station. It’s in our plans for this year. We’ve made big strides in taking care of our PPE for volunteers. It’s best practice to wash your gear immediately after a fire to get the carcinogens out of the gear. So we’re trying to make the special washers and dryers easier to access and have backup gear stockpiles there. Our current strategies are working and things are getting better. The teams you mentioned are critical and I’m going to pass you off to Fleck for this.
Erica Fleck: We continue to work with the GSAR and GEM teams to make sure we’re giving them appropriate tasks. We’re doing training and a big emergency training planned for May, with COVID restrictions, but I’m engaging them at least once a week. With the RSAR teams, I’ve been meeting up with them when I can.
Cuttell: A lot of my questions have been answered through questions from other councillors and I like your innovation. My biggest concern is the response to growth and development. The regional plan review is happening now and looking at things like accommodating transit and fire services. What are we doing as a city to make sure we’re not exacerbating the situation and making the situation worse?. Why aren’t we changing our municipal strategy to make land conservation a priority, which also makes fire service more efficient? It doesn’t seem like the left hand knows what the right hand is doing. What is fire doing to be part of city planning? Are construction best practices based on fire safety standards and how does that integrate without planning and design approvals?
Stuebing: Matt Covey is division chief of fire prevention and works closely with Kelly Denty, but we have tried to work much closer with planning and development in urban design that has been historically done. Also working with Brad Anguish when it comes to roads and traffic calming. We’re trying to do that work better. We’re trying to make sure we’re better integrated so we can talk the same language as Kelly Denty’s team.
Matt Covey: I share your concern and frustration with urban design, flag lots are my pet peeve. We have people who look at the plans, but unless there’s a flagrant fire violation there’s not much we can do. Entrance design and dry hydrants are things we’d like to see but aren’t required right now. But planning and development do consult with us, which is nice. Most new building design is focused on evacuation, compartmentalizing, early warning and trapping smoke. CO detectors have grown, but there’s not a lot of changes with building code. We do have two people who consult on large planning designs. We work closely with development and planning to have a larger consideration for fire safety.
Stuebing: This is a fire and emergency service presentation, it’s the position of Canadian fire chiefs that building codes aren’t great for keeping firefighters safe. Getting people out quickly is great, but doesn’t really consider getting people out. It used to be 20 minutes was safe to go into a building and have it be safe, but now with new building materials it’s often not safe to go into a building by the time we get there.
Kent: I have a hybrid station in the Passage. I’ve been in politics since 2004, and have never had a complaint about fire services. Emergency generators and locations, do you think we have enough generators in the right locations to meet the need in emergency situations? You had direction from the CAO about our priorities, and I’m not seeing an over budget ask, do you have one?
Stuebing: There are plans to expand the generator footprint. We had a lot of discussions about our budget, and overs, but we need to deal with the vacancy issues and solved it with overtime, but in solving that problem we realized we could fix our problems in the wage model. We couldn’t do extra training this year even if we wanted to.
Fleck: We still have gaps in our generator response plan, but it’s in the capital plan, and we’re a year into a the five year plan so we’re on track.
Austin: My question is about the growth piece, when you get a new community built, like Port Wallace… we like to say growth pays for growth, developers build up areas. Where do fire stations fit in? Can they be built with incentives like roads?
Stuebing: That’s not really a question for me, but we tend to treat it like parks and rec. We identify the location and then staff them. The building’s done by someone else. The good news is we’re getting more proactive, and we’re getting more involved in development and planning. But this is a question for Kelly Denty.
Austin: Can we get a one-pager on whether or not fire stations can be part of capital costs contributions.
Russell: Is that a request for a report?
Austin: A briefing request, not a formal report.
Outhit: I agree with Austin
Russell: Me too.
Lovelace: Marine fire service, what are your requirements? What’s coming in the future? Capital costs? Operations? The ICT roadmap, why are we not using Everbridge more? We have access to it, is there an opportunity for fire to use it more effectively?
Fleck: We have big plans for HFX Alert, which is our Everbridge system. It was a staged response and purchase. We got it the day Dorian came! We will be using it more, we had plans for last year but COVID really slowed me down. We also have a subcommittee being setup as a part of the emergency management committee which is also going to help us increase our emergency communications.
Stuebing: Everyone keeps saying COVID delayed them, but we just got the boat and started doing risk assessments. And the harbour just got a new Harbour Master, and the person in charge of the Port Authority has a background in emergency management, and were very interested in our capabilities and limitations, and they want to work with us. We know we have gaps, but we don’t know what they are. The Port Authority is going to help us figure that out, even though they’re a federal responsibility. Buildings surrounded on three sides by water make traditional firefighting a challenge. We also do water rescue, and have small marine vessels, like marinas, that are our responsibility.
Andrews: The harbour rescue boat should be delivered in early summer this year. We have a partnership with local tugs that have pumping capability too.
Stuebing: In addition to the work we’re doing with the Port Authority, we’re also working with the Navy, who are experts at ship board firefighting. (Hells yeah they are, I personally have responded to two shipboard fires, one of them terrifying, and have this sweet pic of me from training
How neat is that?) So it’s nice for us to get one marine asset that’s available 24/7, we still plan to continue working with DND to increase our ship fire response. And it’s a requirement by our regs. But we want to be available if DND isn’t. Also mitigation, we’ve seen catastrophic failures recently, so we want to make sure that doesn’t happen here.
Russell: The generators are great, but they’re one piece of the larger puzzle. Is the building secure? Can it shelter people? And how do we get the word out if there’s no power (you do it beforehand, right?)
Fleck: We only put generators in places that pass our list. It’s got to be accessible, it’s got to have a kitchen, etc. There are two things for communication, HFX Alert will go to phones and email, so their phone would still have battery. And we also have an alert measure that can go out over the radio (haha I’m dumb, this makes more sense).
Russell: The question!
*Procedural question about whether or not an in-camera session is needed (it’s not)*
M/S/C – Vote – Aye – Unanimous
Councillor Paul Russell, Chair (District 15)
Deputy Mayor Tim Outhit (District 16)
Councillor Kathy Deagle-Gammon (District 1)
Councillor David Hendsbee (District 2)
Councillor Becky Kent (District 3)
Councillor Trish Purdy (District 4)
Councillor Sam Austin (District 5)
Councillor Tony Mancini (District 6)
Councillor Waye Mason (District 7)
Councillor Lindell Smith (District 8)
Councillor Shawn Cleary (District 9)
Councillor Kathryn Morse (District 10)
Councillor Patty Cuttell (District 11)
Councillor Iona Stoddard (District 12)
Councillor Pam Lovelace (District 13)
Councillor Lisa Blackburn (District 14)
N/A – COVID
Previous meeting and current agenda:
A former Naval Officer turned journalist, Matt Stickland is committed to empowering his community to ensure that everyone has access to the information they need to make their city a better place.
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