Calgary fire chief does slow burn over response-time increase proposal

City council's planning and urban development committee voted 6-3 Monday to recommend a 10-minute response time for future communities on the city's edges.

Calgary Fire Department Chief Steve Dongworth says move increases risk to people, property

Fire Chief Steve Dongworth is critical of a move to lengthen the target for acceptable fire response times to new areas of the city. (Julie Debeljak/CBC)

Calgary's fire chief doesn't agree with a move to lower the target for responding to fire calls on the outskirts of the city.

City council's planning and urban development committee voted Monday to recommend a 10-minute response time for future communities on the city's edges.

Calgary's current response target for the fire department to get to the scene of a call is seven minutes. The city's planning and urban development committee voted 6-3 Monday to extend that target to 10 minutes for new developments on the outskirts of the city. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

That's a departure from the current city-wide target of having a firetruck on the scene of a fire call within seven minutes, 90 per cent of the time.

The change will only affect future communities and is seen as an interim move until the fire department is fully funded.

'You increase risk to people'

Chief Steve Dongworth told the committee he is opposed to the change.

"You increase risk to people, property and the environment by virtue of that longer response time," said Dongworth. "That's what it's about."

The fire chief went on to say the committee's decision means councillors accept that risk.

Councillors on the committee voted 6-3 to vary the response time target.

Balancing finances and risk

Coun. Ward Sutherland said he doesn't consider this to be an "Armageddon issue" for the city because once a new community moves closer to being built-out and has a substantial population, a fire station will follow.

"I know the fire department does their job," said Sutherland.

"This is the world of risk mitigation and part of our responsibility is to balance, unfortunately, finances and risk mitigation."

But another councillor, Druh Farrell, said she's concerned the decision will create a two-tier city.

She said citizens should have the same expectations about city services, no matter where they live in Calgary.

Then there's the matter of whether future residents of a community on the fringes of Calgary will even know about the different response times.

"We didn't commit to informing Calgarians who are moving into new communities that their emergency services will be reduced and different than other parts of the city," said Farrell.

Almost half of calls for medical issues

The head of the Calgary Firefighters Association said he's concerned the city is heading the wrong direction with its fire services.

Mike Carter said the city should be doing more to ensure it can meet the existing service target.

Mike Carter, the head of the Calgary Firefighters Association, has concerns about meeting current targets, let alone future ones. (CBC)

On the city's outskirts, the committee was told, fire response to calls takes an average of eight minutes and 25 seconds, which is above the seven-minute target.

"If we're not meeting that goal now, then I would suggest we're under-funded and under-resourced, which I mean, we are compared to other municipalities," said Carter.

Almost half of the fire department's calls are for medical issues. Often, firefighters are on the scene of a medical call before EMS paramedics.

In addition, 8.6 per cent of the department's calls are for motor vehicle collisions, which often include medical interventions.

City council will discuss the contentious issue later this month.

About the Author

Scott Dippel

Politics Reporter

Scott Dippel has been at CBC News for more than two decades across four provinces. His roles have included legislative reporter, news reader, assignment editor and national reporter. When not at Calgary's City Hall, it's still all politics, all the time.