City-Hall1

A handful of other issues will be discussed at Tuesday’s council meeting — I can’t wait for the debate over the Fences and Detention of Stray Livestock Act — but the dominant issue will be the “operational review” of the fire department, so I’ll discuss exclusively that here. If something important happens concerning the other issues, I’ll report on it after the meeting.

To understand what’s going on with the fire department, we have to understand the historic context.

We’ll be arguing the merits and demerits of amalgamation for the rest of history. I’m ambivalent, and think the continued argument is mostly pointless — what’s done is done and there’s no unraveling it — but one thing is undeniable: the bureaucrats put in charge of making the new supercity in 1995 were not up to the task.

In the CAO’s office we got first Ken Meech, former Halifax County CAO and country bumpkin, followed by George MacLellan, the incompetent but connected younger brother of then-Liberal Party leader (and later premier) Russell MacLellan. When MacLellan left we were rewarded with Dan English and then Wayne Anstey; their entries in the Examiner’s Halifax Wiki will be dominated by the Washmill Underpass and concert scandals, respectively. Say what you will about current CAO Richard Butts, but he’s put an end to the free-wheeling, anything-goes, seat-of-the-pants management style that characterized City Hall before his arrival.

The new police department created in 1995 was placed in the hands of former city of Halifax police chief Vince MacDonald. MacDonald badly handled the merger of the predecessor police forces, which I believe was a contributing factor in the apparent wrongful conviction of Glenn Assoun. I’ll have more on that when I start getting into the details of the Assoun case, probably in a few weeks. In 2003 MacDonald retired and was replaced by Frank Beazley, who was an old-school cop who allowed no critique of management, either from within or without, and in terms of professional management, brought the force backwards, to circa 1950 levels.

The Halifax Regional Fire Department was also created with amalgamation in 1995. Before that, there were 38 separate fire departments, each established to deal with its specific geographic area — the cities of Halifax and Dartmouth, the town of Bedford, the suburban areas of Eastern Passage and Cole Harbour, and lots and lots of rural townships — and each with their own tax base (or lack thereof) and, especially in the rural areas, a reliance on volunteer firefighters.

Combining all those fire departments into one department was necessarily going to be messy. Gary Greene, the former chief of the city of Dartmouth’s fire department, was given the task.

“I remember the first day in my office,” he told Firefighting in Canada. “I had no telephone. I had no staff. No secretary. I asked Ken Meech (then chief executive officer of Halifax County) what I was supposed to do. He just looked at me and said: ‘Build a fire department’.”

Mike Eddy, the former chief of the city of Halifax’s fire department, was then named the first chief of the new department:

Eddy came up with a strategic plan for the department. “It’s the only strategic plan I’ve ever seen that fits on one 8 1/2  X 11 sheet of paper. This is what has built this organization.”

In fact, 10 years later [in 2007, when the Firefighting in Canada article was written], that document continues to be the guiding light of Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency.  It includes the department’s Mission Statement, Vision Statement, and Values. There are seven Guiding Principles and four Strategic Directions. Everything the department does, every decision it makes, is somehow linked to this document. 

That’s right, the “strategic plan” for fire services for the entire Halifax Regional Municipality was a single sheet of paper. The fire department was not registered as a fire department under the terms of the Municipal Government Act, there were no written protocols for internal management — promotions, discipline, and the like were done at the whim of the chief — and there weren’t established qualifications for being a firefighter.

By 2001 the situation was untenable, and regional council passed Administrative Order 24, which registered the department and gave minimal standards for the force. Council also directed staff to review the existing levels of service and to come up with some overall service standards. It took until December 2005 for that review to come back, and it established the following service levels:

Those standards may have been reasonable, but they weren’t being met. As a February 2006 staff report explained:

The full implementation of this service standard would require 81 additional firefighters

[…]

Because of the financial implications set out in this report, HRM cannot afford to fully implement the full service standard at one time. Therefore the recommendation is to accept the document “service Delivery Standards for Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Service” attached to this report as the desired level of service to be aspired to for the delivery of fire and emergency services to the citizens of the Halifax Regional Municipality by the Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Service. Following the approval of the desired service level, staff will be requested to develop a multi-year response strategy for implementation in accordance with the Business Planning and Budget cycles. In the meantime, council will be requested to adopt a more realistic interim standard based on the resources that the Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Service actually has.

[…]

The goal for the balance of the 2005-06 fiscal period will be an actual service standard for the delivery of fire and emergency services to the citizens of the Halifax Regional Municipality by the Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Service at 70% of the desired standard…. [emphasis added]

The minutes from the council meeting include no discussion of the service standards, but council unanimously passed a motion agreeing to the 70 percent goal and directing staff to “develop a multi-year response strategy for implementation.” The 2006 report prepared by the fire department for council (see Appendix A, pg. 12) specifically called for annual auditing of service standards, as follows:

HRM had by that point existed for a decade, and yet up until the end of 2005, no one knew what kind of service the fire department was providing, whether it was meeting guidelines or not. But better late than never, right? Staff conducted an audit of service standards and in 2006 told council directly that there weren’t enough resources for the fire department to meet the standards council had created five years before, and the department could only get 70 percent of the way there. But, the report continued, the department could create a “multi-year strategy” for meeting the standards, with annual audits to find out how things were going and to help decide how to move around firefighters to “provide more effective and efficient service delivery.” The previous decade spent flying by the seat of the pants was regrettable, but this looked like a road map to progress. Reasonable, even.

Eddy, however, was to leave his position as chief later in 2006, and was replaced by Bill Mosher. Under Mosher, the fire department failed to “develop a multi-year response strategy for implementation” as directed by council, failed to conduct even one annual audit of service delivery standards, and therefore failed to get a handle on firefighter placements to best meet the delivery standards. Basically, Mosher completely ignored the planning aspect of his job.

Fire Chief Doug Trussler

Mosher left the job at the end of 2011 and was replaced by Doug Trussler, who had previously been the fire chief in North Vancouver. Trussler immediately set to clean up shop. His first order of business was to resolve a long conflict with the Black Firefighters Association (Trussler and the BFFA were able to bury the hatchet in part by hanging Blair Cromwell out to dry, but that’s another story). He then chopped a quarter of management positions from the top-heavy department.

Trussler next turned his attention to the service delivery standards. In 2012 he hired SCM Risk Management Services to actually conduct the annual audit that hadn’t been conducted since 2006, but that firm found that there were “data collection and data management issues that made assessment of service levels problematic.”

In the report he prepared for Tuesday’s’s council meeting, Trussler notes dryly that:

[T]echnology gaps have emerged due to a 10-year trend of underinvestment in HRFE technology [that is, through the Eddy and Mosher years]. Technology helps to ensure that firefighters respond to emergencies and have the right equipment at their disposal. Appropriate technology also provides an accurate look back at statistics that form the basis for future decisions. HRFE’s current software and communications hardware is not meeting its operational and strategic planning needs.

How bad is it? Consider that there isn’t reliable GPS on fire department vehicles, basic technology that cab companies have had for many years, and that there isn’t a consistent set of reporting procedures to know what kind of calls the department has made.

To address these problems, Trussler is developing a five-year technology upgrade program costing $9.4 million.

At the same time, he is embarking on a wholesale realignment of fire stations to best meet the service standards that had been completely ignored before he arrived. In the urban area, this means completely closing fire stations #4 (Lady Hammond Road), #11 (Patton Road in Sackville) and #13 (King Street in downtown Dartmouth.) Trussler says all areas covered by those stations will be covered by other nearby stations that will meet the service standards, and staff from the closed stations will be redeployed to other urban stations, cutting down on overtime.

Trussler is also calling for moving a couple of stations — #8 in Bedford and #9 in Sackville — shifting them to the west to also give coverage to the rapidly developing Bedford West area.

The biggest political complaint is going to come from Trussler’s plans for rural stations, which are primarily staffed by volunteer firefighters. There is a complex set of issues involved — too complex to explore here in detail — but the bottom line is there are too many rural stations with too few volunteers. Trussler wants to shift most of the honorarium money* for urban volunteers into the rural areas, enter into reciprocal agreements with fire departments across county lines at Enfield and Hubbards, close four stations, and reconfigure how a handful of others are staffed. I should note that Trussler already closed five rural stations in 2013, but even with the past and planned closures, all properties in rural areas will have access to fire services as per the service standards.

Consider what Trussler has already done: He’s addressed a historic wrong to minority employees. He’s cut the dead wood from fire department brass. He’s taken seriously council resolutions and directions that were ignored by his predecessors. And now he’s making the hard choices about staffing and distribution of resources needed to bring about the highest levels of service to all citizens. This is what responsible professional management looks like.

But no doubt we’ll hear the rural councillors complain. Already Matt Whitman is making noises about proposed staff changes at the station in Black Point. Undoubtedly David Hendsbee will complain about the closure of three stations in his sprawling Eastern Shore district. I don’t know if Barry Dalrymple will see the closure of station #43 in Grand Lake as a trade-off for much improved service at a new airport-area station, but he should.

In the end, councillors should understand that no one before Trussler took the service standard issue seriously, at all. Past chiefs simply kept doing things as they always had been done, and never mind collecting data to assess performance or trying to best allocate resources. It’s disingenuous for councillors to now turn around and say that Trussler’s plans will hurt service in their areas. How would they know? — there are no data to support the charge. By all appearances Trussler is doing the job right.

* Note: the first version of this article said volunteers from the urban area would be shifted to the rural areas. It’s been corrected to note that honorarium payments for urban area volunteers would be shifted to payments for rural area volunteers.

Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. I have to ask,what is the current call or run volume for the fire department now compared to say the year before amalgamation.

    Likely the number of calls is less now than then, which should mean the need for equipment and firefighters is less and therefore less stations.

    Also, I wonder what the absentee rate is?

    Back in the day its was over 50% on nice weekends.

    I wonder why know one will ask ether questions?

  2. Tim, a great review of the relevant history. This should be required reading for all Halifax counselors.

  3. Great writing, especially on the history, which can cause eyes to glaze over if not done well. Kudos, Chief Trussler!