Council approves Prince Albert Fire Department request for three new permanent members

Thursday marks day two of budget deliberations and during a review of the Prince Albert Fire Department’s 2023 budget, City Council approved a request that had been brought to City Hall Chambers and denied three years in a row.

For a total cost of $277,304, the Fire Department will have three new permanent, full-time firefighters hired on at the beginning of next budget year to ensure the department is effectively staffed and that all emergency responses meet the National Fire Protection Association and Occupational Health and Safety requirements.

“These firefighters are essential,” Fire Chief Kris Olsen said. “To fill in our staff is something that multiple chiefs over many years have been asking for.”

City Police are not the only ones feeling the pressure from a significant rise in calls for service. According to Olsen, there has been a 20 per cent raise in calls to the Prince Albert Fire Department since last year. Officers have attended 95 structure fires, 42 vehicle fires, and 157 other hazard responses like vehicle collisions, all in 2021 alone.

Hiring more officers would allow for a full crew, which makes a world of difference, said Olsen. He called Prince Albert a “little city with big city problems,” and that the City will only reap the benefits that will come from filling in department gaps.

“I won’t be supporting this,” said Mayor Greg Dionne. “I don’t support it because I can’t see the changes already. You say we’re going to see changes? When and how.”

Olsen countered that an important piece of the conversation is missing, and that is that the Fire Department is only running a three staffed engine. 

“Not only does that increase the risk to the firefighters, their safety, but also increases the risk to our response and what we can do within that short response time to create effective change for our community members,” explained Olsen. “That’s the big piece of the pie here. We’re not necessarily just talking about our staffing, but we’re talking about the minimum staffing.”

With City Council’s approval of the three new hires, the department would have 12 firefighters working per shift, allowing them to have eight firefighters on two apparatus instead of the seven they have right now.

Coun. Blake Edwards mentioned that with their current three man crews, the firefighters can’t enter a burning building until a fourth person arrives.

Because of Occupational Health and Safety requirements, a full crew is recommended to consist of four officers per vehicle; to enter a burning building, two firefighters must be outside before two can go inside, according to Olsen.

Coun. Ted Zurakowski said the request has been brought to City Council several years in a row and now is the right time to move forward. With the hiring of new firefighters, the Department would be able to do more community-focused work.

“In the Fire Services Bylaw there’s an opportunity there,” said Zurakowski

Several years ago, the City voted on changes to the Fire Services Bylaw that allowed officers with the Fire Department to issue fines for circumstances that are considered hazardous, such as garbage bins left in alleys that result in fires and issuing tickets for illegal fire pits. According to Olsen, the Fire Department used to simply turn off false fire alarms, but since the bylaw’s approval have been using fines to deter pulling them without reason. In the last year, the department has collected $10,000 in billables from these fines, increasing their revenue.

According to the Prince Albert Fire Department 2023 Budget Document in the Fire Fighting Functional Area, the department is expecting to see a revenue amount of $366,070, only 0.15 per cent less than 2021. The total amount of expenses is expected to be 12.89 per cent more than last budget year, at approximately $6,671,000. Excluding the requested dollars for the hiring of new firefighters, the department requested that the 2023 Operating Budget for the Fire Fighting Functional Area be approved for a total cost of $6,304,930. 

The Fire Department’s biggest expenditure in the Fire Fighting Functional Area is salaries, wages, and benefits, coming out to just under 6,500,000. Contracted and general services expenses will nearly double in amount from 2021 due to a $10,100 increase relating to the 911 Dispatching Service Agreement with the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency.

The per capita rate for dispatch services will increase by $0.25 in 2023 and will be applied to the 2021 Statistics Canada Census Population of 37,756, for an overall cost of $18,878. Maintenance, Materials and Supplies will also see a $9,000 increase for training services, which is required to maintain professional licenses. 

A staffing request to hire a Fire Training Officer in the amount of $149,084 was also presented to Council on Thursday morning, which was filed as a not funded operational issue. According to the 2023 Budget Document, the position will enable the department to deliver in-house training, which is currently outsourced to external agencies at a significant cost as reflected in the proposed budget. The training officer will allow the department to hire and train unqualified firefighting staff from within the community and assist the Prince Albert Fire Department in achieving an inclusive workplace with local individuals.

The Fire Department 2023 Budget report included four other functional areas that required approval from the City: Fire Prevention for a total deficit of $308,020; Administration for a total deficit of $1,234,210; Fire Fleet and Equipment for a total deficit of $676,830; and Building Maintenance for a total deficit of $98,710. 

City Council moved to approve the Fire Department’s 2023 budget for an overall total of $8,622,700, it was carried eight to one with Dionne in opposition.

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