Windsor firefighters earn more money than their counterparts employed in Ontario cities of similar size.

A recent arbitration ruling means that a first-class Windsor firefighter now earns $90,000 per year. That’s approximately $6,500 more per year than first-class firefighters in five other similarly sized cities.

London, Oshawa, Kingston, Guelph and St. Catharines all pay less. St. Catharines is currently in arbitration. London's salary is interim as it awaits an arbitrator's award.

When it comes to response time, Windsor is the fastest among the five cities.

It takes Windsor firefighters an average of 3.1 minutes to get from station to a fire call.

The National Fire Protection Association recommends the arrival of a unit with a first responder take no more than four minutes.

Guelph, London and St. Catharines also meet that suggested standard.

In an effort to balance the budget and to continue to keep taxes low city council - led by Mayor Eddie Francis - said it had to make sweeping changes at Windsor Fire and Rescue.

Not only did the arbitrator award firefighters a wage increase, he also lowered the number of hours Windsor firefighters would work — down from 48 to 42 per week.

It was thought Windsor would need to hire as many as 31 new firefighters.

Instead, council approved the closure of three fire halls and the construction of two new ones.

“Property has been secured and dollars have been secured to begin the construction of these new fire halls,” Francis said.

Few new hires

He and council also approved making seven trained firefighters who previously drove chiefs to fire scenes, front-line firefighters. In another change, district chief positions will change to assistant chiefs. And two firefighters, rather than more than 31, will be hired.

Francis said the moves will save the city money and ensure public safety won’t be jeopardized.

'It's a plan that increases coverage for an additional 50,000 residents.'- Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis

“It’s a plan that increases coverage for an additional 50,000 residents. It is a plan that is consistent with the stated goals of city council,” Francis said.

The Windsor Professional Firefighters Association argues the plan decreases service.

Union president Angelo Gertsakis says the location of the two new fire stations won’t improve service and says the city should still hire at least 12 new firefighters.

"It's basically an increase in response time, a reduction in the service and the safety for the community and for the firefighters,” Gertsakis said. “Our city has grown in south Windsor [and] on the east side of Windsor. In the last 20 years, we've dropped the service of firefighters we've got on duty."

In 2012, the city opened Station No. 7 on Mathew Brady Boulevard. At the time, Windsor Fire and Rescue Chief Bruce Montone said it would decrease response time by as much as three minutes in Riverside and Forest Glade.

Setting the standard

Municipalities, not fire departments, not the Office of the Fire Marshal and not the National Professional Firefighters Association, set the level of service fire departments should meet.

“The public may be of the opinion they are entitled to some level of standardized level of fire protection, but that’s absolutely not the case,” said Michal Currie director of Western Canada for the Fire Underwriter’s Survey. “Fire protection decisions are made at the municipal level. So governments at that level make decisions about how much fire protection hey can afford and that’s how much fire protection a community gets.”

Fore example, Barrie council has set a six-minute road response time to all emergency calls. Firefighters are expected to meet that municipal standard 90 per cent of the time.

"We currently achieve a 93 per cent rating," Barrie's senior communications advisor Scot LaMantia wrote in an email. "We do not calculate the average response time, as this could be very misleading depending on call locations and call densities in the city."

'We're going to need to convince them that this is best.'- Fire Chief Bruce Montone

Francis says the union is opposed to any changes because of money.

"Not because it affects coverage, not because it affects the residents, not because it affects safety, not because it curtails security, but because [district chiefs] making 134 per cent more than the base firefighter,” Francis said as an example.

Chief Montone says he will help make the case for changes to the department, even though he knows there is skepticism in the ranks.

"We're going to need to convince them that this is best, given the goalposts that we were provided by council, in terms of zero impact on the tax levy,” he said.