Whether it's spraying down a structure fire or racing to a car crash, there's no substitute for firefighter boots on the ground.

That's consultant Jeff Carlisle's view, at least.

He and his colleagues from Calgary-based Behr Consulting spent months looking closely at Yellowknife's overworked and understaffed fire department, and suggested hiring eight new firefighters, five dispatchers and an administration support staff member.

"You need to bolster your system… You don't have any depth there at all, you don't have mutual aid or neighbouring communities to help you," the senior emergency management specialist told Yellowknife city council on Monday.  

Jeff Carlisle and Rick McCuullough

Jeff Carlisle, left, and Rick McCullough are emergency management specialists with Behr Consulting. (Mark Rendell/CBC)

His company produced a new Fire Master Plan for Yellowknife last month.

They were back up north this week to answer questions from city councillors, who now have to decide whether it's worth investing over $1 million to bring the department up to staffing levels recommended by Behr.

A steady climb in call volume   

Several City councillors wanted to know whether city hall could avoid hiring new staff by tackling some of the issues that have been driving the spike in ambulance calls, such as public intoxication or transportation between medical facilities for Yellowknife's growing seniors population.

"My answer to the question is, you need to either reduce the strain on the response system, or add more capacity to it, and we're recommending that you increase your response capacity," said Carlisle.  

"The analysis shows there's a steady climb in your call volume. I think there's more people who are staying in the community that used to, when they retired, head south. Your medical calls will keep going up; there's a lot of demographics involved in that, and an aging community."

Fire Fighters CBC

Firefighters respond to an alarm at the CBC building in Yellowknife. (Mark Rendell CBC)

He cited Spruce Grove, Alberta — a similar sized City to Yellowknife, which also has a combined fire and ambulance service —  to drive home the point about under staffing.

"They have 45 firefighters to handle the same call volume that your 24 firefighters have," said Carlisle.

And they're already in a better position than Yellowknife, he added, because "they are surrounded by a number of other communities that can provide resources, by the way of mutual aid and fee-for-service response."

Budget

The city's 2017 draft budget does include two additional dispatcher positions, but it makes no mention of additional firefighters.

It may be a case of the new fire plan being released too close to budget season, which begins in early December. But the head of Yellowknife's firefighters union isn't happy there's no new money to increase firehall staffing.

"We were extremely disappointed that there hasn't been some motion, even, towards increasing those staff levels," said Christian Bittrolff, union president of the International Association of Firefighters, for Yellowknife's Local 2890.

Christian Bittrolff

"The Union understands that there's economic realities here... but there needs to be some sort of motion," says Christian Bittrolff, union president of International Association of Firefighters, for Yellowknife's Local 2890. (Mark Rendell/CBC)

"The union understands that there's economic realities here, and you may not be able to jump right to the recommended numbers, but there needs to be some sort of motion. So yes, we would absolutely deem it necessary to start putting budget money together to get more staff," he said.

"We're spending a great deal of our off-shift time doing work or getting called in. And it has a toll on people's family life, on people's stress levels and everything else."

Beyond full-time staff, he said that there needs to be a serious expansion in Yellowknife's paid-on-call firefighters.

"We're supposed to have 30, we have about 15 or 16. Of those, there's about six that are trained to a qualified level to assist us. That puts an incredible burden on our current staff."

What's next?

Following yesterday's preliminary discussion, city council will vote whether or not to officially adopt the report "for information" at a council meeting on Dec. 12.

City administration says it will then begin preparing an implementation plan based on the report, which will come back to council for approval.

All this, however, will happen well after the 2017 budget debates.

That means the fire hall could remain significantly understaffed for another year unless councillors choose to push the issue forward and into the budget next week.

That's Bittrolff's preference.

"The first part to get all this rolling is the staffing increase. Unfortunately it's the most expensive part, but it needs to start happening," he said.