Calgary's fire chief talks challenges the service is facing, and the future of firefighting

CBC's Scott Dippel sat down with Calgary fire Chief Steve Dongworth to talk about the challenges facing the department in 2018 and beyond.

Fire Chief Steve Dongworth talks city sprawl, response times, and diversity on the force

Calgary Fire Chief Steve Dongworth, pictured in a file photo from 2016, said he would like to see the department become more diverse in a way that still ensures the best people possible are being hired to do the job. (Julie Debeljak/CBC)

As Calgary grows and changes, the services that keep the city running have to grow and change as well. 

For the Calgary Fire Department, that means adapting to a sprawling city, making sure their trucks and personnel are there to help people out on what may be the toughest day of their lives. 

CBC's Scott Dippel sat down with Calgary fire Chief Steve Dongworth to talk about the challenges facing the department in 2018 and beyond. 

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity. 

Q: What are the greatest challenges facing the Calgary Fire Department over the next five years?

A: I think fundamentally it's going to be maintaining our service level in a growing city with a growing call volume.

We have a development industry champing at the bit to start building, and there's nothing wrong with development, nothing wrong with growth, but at the same time the city doesn't really have the funds to fully support in the way they have previously the infrastructure that would be required to service those communities.

There'll also be a very close look at whether our response time targets are inordinately aggressive. Is our staffing at the right level? What impact could residential sprinklers have on the mix?

Those are all questions that council's signalled they're going to ask … they're all interlinked, all complex, and all something that could have a huge impact on the fire department over the next number of decades.

Q: Whenever the day comes that you leave as fire chief, where do you want the department to be?

A: I'd like to think that we're providing a similar level of service to what we're providing to Calgarians today, at a minimum. 

My biggest goal, and I was very clear with this when I became chief of the department, is we have a culture — the fire service as a whole has a culture — that's not necessarily reflective of the world around us.

It's very much seen as necessary that we diversify our workforce. We certainly want to attract more women to the Calgary Fire Department, we want to attract more people of different ethnicities, we want to make this a welcome place for people of the LGBTQ community, for everyone. 

The Calgary Fire Department has seen three budget reductions in the past three years. Fire Chief Steve Dongworth said the department is 'light and lean' but not meeting its targets and he would like to see more resources in place. (David Bell/CBC)

We of course want to make sure people are capable of doing the job, which is a basic requirement. I'd love to see a more diverse fire department. And to do that, you also have to work on how welcoming, accepting, tolerating your culture is to that change. 

You don't have to persuade firefighters too hard to help each other when one of their fellows is struggling, but I have to say it hasn't always been the most receptive culture to people who don't fit what seems to be a bit of a stereotype about firefighters.

There's a lot of good fundamentals in place, I guess we just need to modernize that culture. 

Q: You touched on a little bit of the growth issue. I think of growth on the outskirts. The city gets bigger, and at a certain point, a new fire hall is needed. The flip side of that is the developed area of the city is getting denser.

As a fire service, how do you balance that challenge? Because, as you know, there's only so many dollars coming your way from city hall. 

A: We're constantly monitoring what we do. We adjust what units we have in certain parts of the city at times to respond to that.

You look at parts of downtown, which has become so much more residential than it was previously, huge increase in population, different kind of call volume.

We are seeing increased [call] volume across the city in excess of 10 per cent year over year. 

We just implemented a new dispatching system that is much more able to tailor the response to an event to what the caller is telling us is going on, whereas we used to be very cookie cutter.

What we're seeing is that even though we had an increase in call volume, we actually had less truck movements than the year before. Which shows we're doing a good job of sending the right trucks and right number of trucks to calls based on the hundreds of different call types that come in. 

We also do something we call dynamic deployment now, which is where we redistribute our fleet during the day based on what's going on.

Q: If you could do one thing to change the makeup of this city to make firefighting work easier, what would that be?

A: I am an advocate for residential sprinklers, I think that we've seen such a decline in fire deaths, fire injuries over the years, to a large degree due to the advent of smoke alarms.

When you think about what's the next technology that could be used, it has to be residential sprinklers.

Smoke alarms are a good measure and certainly something we continue to recommend … but they do nothing at all to control a fire.

Firefighters examine a building after a blaze was extinguished in a former funeral home at 17th Avenue and 2nd Street S.W. on Feb. 8, 2017. (Mike Symington/CBC)

A lot of people are intimidated by the notion of having a sprinkler system in their home. They think they look ugly (the newer ones you can actually not even see they're there), people think they go off all at once (they don't, they're heat sensitive), people think they're expensive (which they're not). All these things, which are largely false. 

I don't believe there's a case of anyone dying in a home that has residential sprinklers, where they're used.

Q: What would you change in terms of the growth and layout of the city if you could, hypothetically?

A: I don't think that's part of my role as fire chief. The notion of denser communities makes a whole lot of sense. If we kept the same lot sizes as we had in the 70s, and the city had grown, how much larger would the city be?

I'd argue that would be a tougher challenge for fire services and I have to think as well from a city perspective that doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

We have this downside from density in terms of fire spread, but the huge upsides for me would likely outweigh those.

Q: Are there any unique physical challenges to responding to fires in Calgary?

A: The one I would go with is that we're a unicity. For lots of municipalities (the lower mainland, Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton), they have adjoining communities they have aid agreements with … which can help a little bit sometimes as a fire service, you can leverage someone else's resources rather than always going to your taxpayers for funding and support.

Q: What's the most difficult decision you've had to make as chief?

A: We've just made some decisions in regards to reducing our budget and those have been tough decisions, hard on people. 

This is the third reduction in three years and this has been the toughest one, because you have less places to go and look for savings. 

Q: What parts of this job worry you at night?

A: The most significant thing for me would be without question I dread the phone ringing at night and one of my people has been hurt, or worse. And I think every fire chief would tell you something similar. 

Fire chief Steve Dongworth salutes a monument to fallen firefighters at a ceremony in Calgary in September 2016. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

It doesn't mean I'm not distressed when a member of the community is hurt, but I'm responsible for the resources our people have, the training people have, the equipment … I'm responsible for their safety. 

Q: If money was no object, how would the fire service be different in Calgary?

A: You say no object, but I take very seriously that whatever investment we have is on the backs of the taxpayers and I'm a taxpayer myself in the city, so we're not going to go and spend like drunken sailors.

I think certainly we would invest a little more. One thing we're really struggling with is training our people. 

There's so much training in our world from an incident management perspective, to a mental health perspective, to equipment that we use, and ever-increasing demand on our capacity to get people off of shift for a while to take training courses rather than having them on shift where they're constantly getting interrupted.

We are a light and lean fire department and we're not meeting our targets so I'd like to put us in a position where we could put some more resources in place.

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at