Councillors have tentatively approved an increased Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency budget for 2021-2022, including 15 new positions.
The fire department presented its proposed operating budget to Halifax regional council’s budget committee on Wednesday. At $76.6 million, it’s a 7.9% increase over the cut back 2020-2021 COVID-19 budget of $71 million.
The big differences between the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 include $3.4 million in increased wages and benefits, $1 million in overtime to maintain service at three stations, and increased costs for equipment ($230,000), training ($290,000), and COVID-19 PPE ($120,000).
That $3.4 million accounts for 15 new full-time positions — 12 firefighters, two fire inspectors, and one emergency management assistant coordinator.
Before Chief Ken Stuebing presented the budget to the committee, Capt. Brendan Meagher, president of the Halifax Professional Firefighters Association, the union representing firefighters in HRM, used the public participation opportunity during the meeting to highlight some requests he made of councillors.
In an email to councillors Wednesday morning, Meagher made six requests, quoted below:
- Your continued commitment to staff apparatus to a minimum of 4 per truck and to consider 5 per truck in areas where service delivery targets are not being met. If we continue to not meet KPIs in these communities additional trucks should be considered in the future.
- We need staff in every station presently staffed and in stations we dont have yet. No urban or suburban area of this city has contracted. No station should have staff removed to supplement another community. We need to grow.
- In a geographic region as large as PEI, we have 52 Fire Stations and over 100 Heavy Apparatus. We should plan for capitol replacement of at least 1 Station 1 Aerial Apparatus and 4 Fire Engines per year.
- Better technology to improve dispatch times, communications and data collection
- We need a training facility to develop and maintain our skills.
- No new developments should be approved without consideration and consultation with HRFE representatives on Fire Station location, access to water supply, street dimensions, and fire protection concerns / hazard considerations. We love development, let’s be part of it rather than a retrofit.
“If there is any one message we can communicate consistently, it is that we need firefighters on fire trucks,” Meagher said Wednesday.
During his presentation, Stuebing told councillors the fire department hasn’t been meeting its “effective firefighting force” standards in urban areas nearly half the time. Those standards require the department to have 14 firefighters respond to a fire within 11 minutes, 90% of the time. The department met that standard 54.9% of the time in 2020, compared to 57.9% in 2019.
“That’s largely because of our vacancy management we had last year,” Stuebing said, referring to positions left open due to COVID-19 budget cuts.
The 12 positions being added this year are designed to close that gap, but Stuebing said he doesn’t feel the fire department is prepared for future growth in the municipality. He described the department as “lean.”
Defending council’s past support for the fire service, Mayor Mike Savage noted growth in the fire budget has outpaced growth in the overall budget and the city’s population.
“In the last five years, our population has gone from 416,000 to 448,000, which is a 7.7% growth, much of that in the core of the city,” Savage said.
“The fire budget in that period of time has gone from $58 million to $76 million, which is over 30% … I think people need to understand this council has been very supportive of the fire department.”
Savage said the city’s overall budget has grown 13.7% in that time. He asked what next year’s fire budget will look like.
“We are expecting there to be less pressure on the overtime line,” Stuebing replied, adding there could be changes due to ongoing contract negotiations with the union.
Stuebing’s presentation included no options over budget for council’s consideration.
The full budget is slated for council’s consideration on April 20. The committee process continues next week with Halifax Transit’s proposed operating budget.