Fire Department Review


At its meeting on Monday, April 23rd, Council considered a report from the Fire Chief about how Midland Fire should be responding to automated alarms when the vast majority of them are false alarms and when one option for responding involves large overtime costs.  The basic message in the report was the Fire Chief did not want to be responsible for deciding how his department should comply with its 2012 approved operating budget.  So instead of making any recommendation, his report listed some options without costing them out and then asked Council to decide how the department should operate.  In the end, Council left Fire’s 2012 budget unchanged and decided to seek advice from the external consultant who will soon be carrying out a management review of Midland’s operations.

Here’s our quick take on Fire Departments in general and Midland’s in particular.

Compared to car accidents for instance, there are not many fires and very few of them cause injuries or deaths.  Over the last three years Midland has seen slightly less than 13 structure fires a year – about one a month.  The Building Code and the Fire Code ensure that buildings today are safer than ever before. Ten dollar smoke detectors save lives today but were unheard of a couple of generations ago.  The simple truth is there are fewer fires and people are less at risk now than ever before.  Yet despite reduced risks, Fire Department spending continues to escalate.  Midland Fire’s 2011 operating budget was over $2.4 Million.

We recently studied a group of municipalities and their spending in several different service areas including Fire.  The study contains too much data to reproduce here but one telling comparison can be made between Midland and our neighbour Penetanguishene. In 2009 Midland Fire had 17 full-time staff while Penetanguishene Fire had 2. Both towns used “volunteer” (part-time) firefighters to supplement the full-time staff.  Midland reported 13 fires involving residential structures while Penetanguishene reported 4 that year.  Penetanguishene’s five-year average for casualties from fires was zero – no loss of life and no injuries.  And Penetanguishene achieved that result at a cost of $177 per household compared to Midland’s cost of $401 per household.

With real-life examples like Penetanguishene right on our doorstep, Midland Council should ask whether a new Fire Department model is needed for Midland.  The current model is not sustainable.  Eighty-five cents of every dollar spent by the Midland Fire Department goes to labour costs.  The department’s spending increased by 97% from 2000 to 2009 while at the same time the CPI increased just 20%.  Taxpayers cannot afford to bear spiralling labour increases especially when no clear public safety or other benefit results.

Thoughtful discussions about how limited public resources should get allocated often get hijacked by misinformation or emotion.  It is a cold, hard fact that people are killed and injured in car accidents every day.  Yet even though “lives are at stake”, we all recognize we cannot allocate unlimited resources to traffic safety any more than we can to medical services for accident victims or anyone else.  Public resources are always limited so the key issue is to draw the line between how much is enough and how much is too much.  When $177 per household gets Penetanguishene no casualties over 5 years what more does Midland get for all its additional spending?

Public services compete with each other for public funding.  Because public funds are always limited, spending more than necessary on one service deprives other services of possible funding.  Midland Council identifies economic development as its highest priority but struggles to allocate even token funding to it.

We think we need a public discussion soon on how much funding we should be allocating to the Midland Fire Department.

The Fire Department Review Team.

2 Comments on "Fire Department Review"

  1. Corrie St.Amant | May 22, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Reply

    It truely bothers me that a comparison between Midland and Penetang were made to explain the difference between department spending. The last time I was in Penetang I did not see any apartment buildings, especially ones with more than 10 floors, not to mention hotels that host our very important tourists. I also did not see Penetang doing much in the way of fire prevention awareness. Maybe a better comparison between the two towns would have been to devide the costs between actual people considering Midland has a larger population, considering our fire department is first responders to more than house fires. Maybe this would be more enlightening to the true costs. It really bothers me that the only opinions that matter to our town council are those from people who will not be directly effected by limiting our fire department. Maybe a better way to reduce the overall budget would be to reduce raises given to town employees considering not many of us working in the private sector have seen raises in the last 3 years due to the economy or maybe reducing use of town vehicles would be a good idea. Last year my family enjoyed a beach in Penetang quite often and many times we would see a Town of Midland vehicle parked in a driveway on Fox Street. I wonder how much that costs a year? Every little bit would help. Or maybe you could stop hiring outside consultants to do the job that was meant to be done by the town counsel. It truely bothers me that it is our safety that is being reduced to numbers. Who will be accountable when response times are higher or fires are more damaging because of lack of man power? Will McKay take responsibility? No unfortunately it will be the Fire Chief who’s hands are being tied. He’s damned if he does and he’s damned if he doesn’t. Maybe we should be thanking him and his staff for fighting to keep our town safe. I feel comforted in knowing that my taxes are actually going to something I care about.
    Corrie St.Amant
    Midland Resident.

  2. norm summers | July 17, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Reply

    Corrie i agree with you on most points. The $177.00 penetanguishene spends has no influence on peoples structures burning down. They could have twenty fires. Its got of their control. They do have a very good trained staff and like all other depts, they do promote fire prevention. Comparing a town half the size with none of the buildings you mentioned is like comparing apples to oranges. As for the town truck being in a driveway, well that is not for personal use. That employee is on call and pays for the use of that truck from the border of midland and back again as a taxable benefit. As for motor vehicle accidents, maybe midland should charge for their services like so many other municipalities do. I’m not sure if they do or not.
    Norm Summers
    Midland resident

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