A city proposal to reduce from five to four the minimum number of firefighters that must be on duty at all times would limit the vital tasks firefighters can perform during the most critical stages of a fire, says the local firefighters’ union.
Jody Long, president of the Owen Sound Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 531, said if four firefighters respond to a blaze, they would have to wait for a fifth to arrive before entering the structure to begin an interior attack or to safely rescue an occupant.
The fifth firefighter would be responding from their home, costing “precious time,” he said.
“The proposed reduction by the city would put the firefighters at an increased risk due to not being able to intervene at the most critical time – the initial stages of fire growth,” Long said.
It would also cause “an increase in property damages due to the spread of fire and compromise the safety of any occupants left inside the home,” he said.
The city and OSPFFA Local 531 are in the middle of the interest arbitration process for a new collective agreement that will be effective Jan. 1, 2015.
Only staffing issues remain outstanding.
City council voted last week to reconfirm its support for reducing the minimum number of on-duty firefighters as a way to cut down on overtime costs, which were $181,000 in 2017 and $89,000 in 2018.
The firefighters’ association is asking the arbitrators to not approve the city’s proposal, but to increase the total staffing complement at the department from 26 to 28 firefighters.
Owen Sound retained KCB Inc. to conduct an assessment of the fire department and recommend ways for the service to be run more efficiently while continuing to meet the city’s fire protection requirements.
The top recommendation was for the city to “consider” reducing from five to four the minimum number of on-duty fire suppression staff at its fire hall.
KCB said Ontario municipalities establish their own level of fire response and assume the associated risks and benefits.
Their report says Ontario’s Ministry of Labour and U.S.-based National Fire Protection Association and Occupational Safety and Health Administration each require that a minimum of two firefighters perform interior operations at a time during a fire, while at least two others serve as a rapid intervention team outside in case the initial team needs to be rescued.
The Owen Sound department’s policy requires five suppression firefighters as a first-in response to all fires, which allows them to have a two-person rescue team, two-person rapid intervention team and pump operator.
The operator can act as one of the four people required to affect a rescue “as long as abandoning the apparatus does not adversely impact the safety of others or negatively affect the firefighter rescue effort,” the policy states.
However, KCB recommends that the pump operator not be assigned to a rapid intervention team, as a “a monitored water supply is essential to interior operations and the pumper must be staffed at all times.”
The KCB report says if an arbitrator were to agree to reduce the minimum on-duty staffing to four, the Owen Sound department would have to alter its on-scene practices to wait for a fifth firefighter to arrive before starting interior firefighting activities.
Andy MacDonald of KCB told council that six firefighters would still be assigned to each platoon under the city’s proposal, so the on-duty staffing level would only drop to four when firefighters aren’t available due to an illness, sick leave, an injury or other reasons.
“This isn’t to reduce staffing to four all the time. It’s just not calling in that fifth person on the days when you have four show up for duty,” he said.
There would still be five firefighters on standby duty at all times to respond to second-alarm occurrences, which includes all confirmed fires. All other city firefighters and Inter Township firefighters are called in to assist for third-alarm blazes.
MacDonald noted city firefighters responded to 22 fires in 2017.
Owen Sound’s fire chief and deputy chief both support the proposed reduction.
“Throughout the province, the typical response on the first crew arriving is four. That’s the typical norm. It’s a little more unusual here that we have five,” deputy fire chief Michael Clark told council last week.
KCB recommended the city weigh the risks of altering their first response capabilities against the associated financial benefits of reducing the minimum staffing before striving to change the collective agreement.
Long said the firefighters’ association does not agree with lowering the on-duty minimum to four.
He said the first few minutes of a “growing fire” are when firefighters can intervene and make a difference.
“The initial responding crew of five firefighters can perform critical tasks that allow them to initiate interior operations,” he said.
“An initial fire attack from the inside can stop a small contents fire to the room of origin limiting damage to the property and lessening the disruption to the homeowner or occupants. The initial responding crew can also safely perform a rescue of a trapped occupant.
“The city’s proposal of having a minimum staff of four firefighters responding will not allow these operations to be accomplished until the callback of a fifth firefighter arrives on scene.”