City staff say a plan to overhaul Greater Sudbury's fire department will ensure that more Sudburians are safe and will replace outdated fire halls.

But the long-awaited optimization plan will also see an increase in taxes in areas currently served by volunteer firefighters, whose numbers could be cut in half, while more full-time firefighters are hired.

"We're building a service that we confidently feel will respond to the city's needs for the next 50 years," said deputy fire chief Darrel McAloney.

The plan, which will be formally presented to Sudbury city council on March 22, sees nine of the current 24 fire halls closed.

They include Copper Cliff, Lively, Beaver Lake, Azilda, Vermillion Lake, Falconbridge, Val Therese, Coniston and Red Deer Lake.

The new plan would see composite stations staffed by both full-time and volunteer firefighters set up in Lively, Chelmsford, Val Caron and Garson, which city staff argue will decrease response times to those areas and make more complicated rescues possible in more remote areas.

The staff report estimates that the full-time compliment would go from 108 to 166 within the next decade, while the volunteer ranks would be almost cut in half from the current staffing level of 350.

McAloney says this plan is not about phasing out volunteer firefighters, who are paid part-time employees of the city.

"It's based on risk, the community risk we're responding to," said McAloney, adding the city wants to see more formal training for volunteer crews and more opportunities for them to move into full-time positions.

Lively fire hall

Equipment hangs in the Lively fire hall, one of nine volunteer stations the new optimization plan suggests be closed. (Erik White/CBC)

Under the new plan, firefighters would be able to reach 90 per cent of Greater Sudbury within nine minutes, as opposed to the current 69 per cent, according to the city. This is because there would be four full-time firefighters at each composite station, plus volunteers, who are not required to show up for fire calls.

Under the optimization plan, the annual operating budget for the fire department would increase by about $6 million by 2026 — plus the millions that would have to be spent building and renovating fire stations.

It really speaks to a one city, one service model - Deputy fire chief Darrel McAloney

The city also plans to end to the area rating tax model, where people in the outlying areas of Greater Sudbury, such as Dowling, Capreol or Hanmer, currently pay less in taxes because they were traditionally served by volunteer firefighters.

This would see some tax bills climb by several hundred dollars a year.

"It really speaks to a one city, one service model, and it speaks to a one city, one service taxation," said McAloney.

He said while many services were merged along with the eight municipalities 16 years ago, the fire department has never had a "scientific" review until now.

Michael Vagnini

Ward 2 Greater Sudbury city councillor Michael Vagnini (Yvon Theriault/Radio-Canada)

The proposed reforms are "long overdue," according to Kris Volpel, the president of the Sudbury Professional Firefighters Association.

With improved response times and plans to build new fire stations for the first time in 30 years, he said he expects city council will approve the plan.

"I really have a hard time picturing them assessing all of the risks and looking at all of the things the report points to and not adopting it," said Volpel.

'Quite frustrated with the process'

But the union for the city's volunteer firefighters is vowing to lobby against the plan.

Gord O'Coin, the regional director for the Christian Labour Association of Canada, said replacing cost-effective volunteer brigades with full-time firefighters will cost taxpayers millions more per year and not make them safer.

"We were quite shocked and quite frustrated with the process," he said.

Ward 2 Coun. Michael Vagnini would see three of the five fire halls in his ward close under the plan, with Beaver Lake merging into Whitefish, Lively merging into the Waters station on Black Lake Road and the Copper Cliff hall shutting down.

Vagnini said this plan would have such an impact on all parts of the city, he believes it should be put to a referendum.

"I mean, we had a referendum for store hours. This, this is huge," he said.

Vagnini said he suspects some of his constituents will use this as an example of how amalgamation isn't working for the outlying parts of Greater Sudbury.

Sudburians will get their say at a series of public meetings on the optimization plan:

  • Monday February 27, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Kinsmen Hall in Lively
  • Wednesday March 1, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Colonial Inn in Coniston
  • Monday March 6, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Dowling Leisure Centre in Dowling
  • Wednesday March 8, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Centennial Arena in Hanmer
  • Thursday March 9, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Falconbridge Community Centre in Falconbridge