Hoping to turn around what the chief described as a “system under strain,” councillors will consider adding 10 firefighters to the ranks of Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency.
HRFE Chief Ken Stuebing presented his proposed 2022-2023 operating budget to a virtual meeting of council’s budget committee on Wednesday.
The city’s finance department gave Stuebing a target of $78,090,000, a 1.9% increase. Most of that increase is attributed to new positions, including eight inspectors and four specialists to address a recent auditor general’s report. There are also 12 new firefighters in the budget. Those positions were approved in last year’s budget, but not for a full year’s pay.
And while council has been adding to the fire complement annually, it’s not enough to keep up with the city’s rapid growth.
“I think we’re starting to see the effects of a system under strain,” Stuebing told councillors on Wednesday.
“We have minimal staffing in all of our stations on all of our trucks. We rarely have a situation where we have more than four firefighters on a truck and sometimes I would say we had trouble even staffing the trucks with our minimum staffing levels.”
Capt. Brendan Meagher, president of the Halifax Professional Firefighters Association, urged councillors during a presentation at the start of Wednesday’s meeting, “to support ongoing and continuous hiring to match the increased demand for staffing.”
Stuebing, along with Meagher, has been sounding the alarm for years about HRFE’s ability to have an effective firefighter response — 14 firefighters on the scene of a fire within 11 minutes, at least 90% of the time.
In Bedford and Sackville, HRFE is meeting that target just 3.05% and 2.17% of the time, respectively.
“Our focus for the last two years has been really on the Bedford-Sackville area,” Stuebing said. “We certainly have some other challenges but those are the critical areas right now that keep us up at night.”
He asked councillors to add another 10 firefighters to the complement to start to fix the issue, but they wouldn’t be hired until next February. That means the move won’t cost any extra money this year or next, Stuebing said.
Coun. Paul Russell, chair of the budget committee, put the motion on the floor, to consider the addition of 10 firefighters starting in February 2023 by slashing overtime budgets this year and next. Russell, who represents Lower Sackville, said parts of the chief’s presentation were “frankly scary.”
Councillors voted unanimously in favour of the motion, which adds the new positions to the budget adjustment list for consideration the end of the budget-building process.
They also added two other items to the list: $75,000 for a second “assistant emergency management coordinator required to assist with the ongoing council directed emergency response to homelessness,” and $55,000 to start and train new volunteer joint emergency management teams.
After voting in favour of the fire budget, which will be finalized with the vote on the entire budget in the spring, councillors heard a presentation on the Halifax Public Libraries budget. That debate will continue on Friday.
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