Staffing issues are burning a hole in the Port Moody fire department’s resources.
Port Moody Fire Rescue Service’s budget pays out nearly $500,000 in overtime costs annually, and is falling behind in its fire inspection requirements, said Deputy Fire Chief Kirk Heaven.
“We have no fat,” Heaven said. “We have the ability to shuffle some of our junior firefighters around for coverage, but this becomes short-lived as people are off longer, and we end up just hiring overtime to replace these staff.”
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Heaven presented the department’s budget to city council on March 21. He said they need to hire three full-time positions at a cost of nearly $350,000 or the issue will get worse.
The city is currently undergoing budget deliberations, and pondering cuts to services as a way to lessen a projected property tax increase of more than 11 percent.
While council was generally supportive of the department’s request, Coun. Diana Dilworth said they may need to prepare to scale back on community engagement due to the city’s tax woes.
She said similar pressures are being faced by other city councils, fire halls and police departments across the Lower Mainland.
“I know that’s out of line in terms of educating our public and reducing risk, but something’s going to have to give,” Dilworth said. “I really don’t want it to be fire rescue, I’m just asking you to keep that in mind.”
Port Moody’s fire department currently employs 40 firefighters, with 32 members working four different shifts, and eight members off at any given time due to leave or vacation.
Two of the new hires requested would be for new firefighters, while another fire prevention inspector is also needed.
Heaven said whenever an officer is off sick, they have to rely on overtime to fill that position because they have no extra staff.
This leads to burnout at an already stretched department, compounding existing challenges relating to mental health issues and PTSD among its members, according to Heaven.
Port Moody Fire Rescue Service also operates a “flex” schedule for new recruits on temporary positions, who are often moved around throughout their 56-day cycles, filling staffing gaps at other fire halls.
This model further burdens overtime costs, as the members brought in to replace them are at a much higher pay schedule.
“It’s just basically robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Heaven said. “We’re so lean, it doesn’t work the way it’s intended to.”
And the department is getting busier due to systemic factors beyond its control.
Delays in the Emergency Health Service’s response time means that resources are held up waiting for an ambulance to arrive. On one occasion in late 2022, Heaven said they were stuck at an incident for over seven hours awaiting paramedics.
“In the city, we had one piece of apparatus that was handling everything. So that became very, very thin, and very, very concerning ” he said. “There’s times in the city where we have absolutely no coverage. We actually have to call out (to other departments for assistance).”
There are upcoming changes to the BC Fire Code, requiring more regular fire inspections of commercial and public buildings, as well as different business types, and additional community risk assessments.
Currently, the city’s single fire prevention inspector has no one else supporting them, Heaven said, and the city is not managing seven different code requirements due to a lack of capability.
A community outreach officer hired in 2018 is exhausting approximately half their time assisting the fire inspector, and the department wants to devote more time to fire-safety talks in the community, Heaven said.
Heaven also said their firefighters need additional training in responding to incidents in highrises, noting that only eight people were able to respond to a recent incident in a tower.
“That’s not the number we’re looking for. We need a lot larger number than that,” he said.
Dilworth asked how the department would be affected if these positions were not immediately added to the department.
Heaven said they would struggle to comply with the new legislation under the BC Fire Code, and he would expect to see further burnout and overtime costs.
“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “There’s just things we are not getting to.”
Attracting and retaining new firefighters and volunteer firefighters is also a challenge facing the department.
Fire halls across the region are hiring, and junior firefighters view the city’s flex schedule as a burden when they have other options, according to Heaven.
Similar issues are facing the department’s pool of volunteer firefighters.
Heaven said the city lost 11 of its 20 volunteer firefighters last year, and they are down to about six or seven active members.
Volunteer firefighters are no longer sourced from local populations, and members travel sometimes long distances from across Metro Vancouver.
“It’s a huge challenge where we’ll spend all that time and money to train, and then folks move off to a career department,” Heaven said. “We don’t blame them, it’s a great career.
However, he said the task now will be retraining new volunteers to replenish the department’s reserve force.