Town looks to hire more full-time firefighters

Council proceeds with option to help cover daytime emergency calls

Sidney needs more daytime firefighters to be able to adequately respond to emergency calls.

This need is outlined in a firefighter hiring plan, presented to town council on Feb. 4 and approved during their budget discussions that night. What that means for taxpayers is a $38,852 increase in the department’s budget in 2013 and additional increases over the following five years as the department hires four new firefighters, bringing the total to seven full-timers.

A firefighter hiring plan was brought up in 2012 after the department raised the ongoing issue of a lack of volunteers in the community available to respond to daytime emergency calls. Council at the time asked the department to pursue other options first, such as a recruitment drive and advertising, before pressing on with the hiring plan.

Sidney Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jim Tweedhope told the News Review earlier that a firefighter recruitment drive last fall attracted eight new members. They will eventually, he said, help the Sidney department respond to emergency calls throughout the day. However, not all of the recruits or current firefighters are available during the day. This means more reliance upon Sidney’s three career firefighters (a fourth full-timer is an administrative assistant) and the mutual aid agreement between them, the North Saanich and Central Saanich fire departments.

“(Daytime coverage is) always an issue with volunteer fire departments,” Tweedhope said, noting people work, attend school and sometimes do those things outside of the community.

“It’s a bonus if they’re available during the day but we cannot make that connected to recruiting new firefighters.”

The new recruits are two years away from being effective frontline firefighters. So, the chief is asking for a blended department — a mix of 30 volunteer members and an additional four full-timers to bring the career firefighter contingent up to seven. In Sidney, Tweedhope said the department responds to an emergency call with five firefighters on a truck.

“The issue is daytime firefighter availability,” said Councillor Mervyn Lougher-Goodey. “There is still not enough to provide adequate coverage.”

Coun. Steve Price said there’s a cost associated with the hiring plan, so a call for no tax increases this year is looking unlikely.

“But most people, in my view, would like to see this council protect the safety and security of our residents,” he said.

Mayor Larry Cross added if Sidney cannot need this need for adequate fire protection during the day, their liability risk increases and insurance rates might go up.

Coun. Marilyn Loveless said it would be risky to consider police or fire department cutbacks, adding the hiring plan option chosen by council will cost the average taxpayer $2 per month.

The plan calls for the hiring of one career firefighter this year, two more in 2014 and a fourth in 2015. The estimated cost of having all four on staff in 2015 is $147,748.

Phased in over six years, the additional cost to having four new full-timers is an estimated $253,269 by 2018, or no more than a 0.64 per cent increase in taxes over those six years.

Town staff are including a savings of $126,000 from 2014 to 2018 — that’s the cost of one of the department’s assistant fire chiefs, who is planning on retiring midway through 2014.

Lougher-Goodey said the town is at the point where a blended department has to be considered, but added he doesn’t want to give the department carte blanche. He said the plan will have to be assessed by council each year.

“Follow the plan,” he said, “but each year of the plan, review it. We have been warned there will be some growing pains, so we have to move cautiously.”

The Central Saanich volunteer fire department has four full-timers, while there are only three in North Saanich. Both of those, however, have 40-plus volunteers available.