Year 'not forgotten' for firefighters, says union president

Winnipeg's fire paramedic service received more calls for service, battled near-record building fires and coped with a meth crisis. The head of the union representing firefighters says it is time to invest in more resources for the department.

Alex Forrest says 2019 one of the busiest battling big fires, wicked weather and the meth crisis

Fire consumed a warehouse on Jarvis Avenue in Winnipeg's North End in July. (City of Winnipeg)

The head of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg says 2019 will be "the year that won't be forgotten" and is concerned the city's funding for emergency services isn't keeping up with the demand.

Alex Forrest says the list of incidents and statistics add up to perhaps the busiest year the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service has seen — ever.

CBC News asked the city to provide some of the data for the year and the numbers do suggest it was a busy year for firefighters.

A spokesperson for WFPS wrote that the preliminary statistics and numbers may change slightly as end-of-year reporting is completed.

WFPS responded to 1804 fires last year, which is down slightly from 2018. That year saw 1837 fires, but the city said there were a high number of grass fires due to dry conditions. Crews battled 1560 fires in 2017.

The city said of last year's total, 746 were structure fires, up from 690 in 2018, and 635 in 2017.

The spokesperson noted that over the last five years the number of structure fires has gone up by approximately 30 per cent.

Last year seven people died from injuries related to fires, according to the city.

It also said 20.4 per cent of fires in 2019 were ruled as arson or considered suspicious. That's up from 16.4 per cent of fires in 2018 and 19.8 per cent in 2017.

The spokesperson said the number of arsons is likely much higher as a large amount of fire causes were classified as undetermined.

UFFW president Alex Forrest says in 20 years, this is one of the busiest years he's seen when it comes to fighting fires. (Rudy Gauer/CBC )

Forrest ticks off several items that aren't statistics but incidents he believes have burned this past year into the memories of his members.

He recalls emergency crews fighting fires during extreme cold last February and then being called out for dozens of grass fires in a very dry spring. 

A carbon monoxide leak at a Super 8 Motel in July sent 46 people to hospital — fifteen of them were, at one point, in critical condition and five were unstable.

The ice and snow storm in October generated hundreds of calls for help as fallen trees all over Winnipeg knocked down power lines and blocked streets.

Forrest said too many fire trucks were in the shop for maintenance, a truck stolen for a joy ride and a meth crisis across the city that keeps emergency responders busy — and wary for their safety as they treat unpredictable patients.

A stolen fire truck highlighted how tight the WFPS fleet of vehicles is as several are in the shop for maintenance. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Forrest isn't sure if 2019 broke a record for the most structure fires, but he's confident the numbers are consistently increasing.

"I can tell you in the last 20 years this is one of the busiest years we've had fighting fires. And the intensity of the fires... were amazing — we had some major fires," Forrest told CBC News.

The union president said the calls for response continue to grow but funding for the bricks and mortar of firefighting — new stations, trucks, etc. — isn't keeping up.

"We aren't getting the resources. We aren't getting the funding to have replacement fire trucks when they break down. We aren't getting the funding to have a fire hall when we need one, in an area the size of a Brandon, in Waverley West," Forrest said.

'We need all the trucks we have' says councillor

Resources are scarce as the city lurches through a new four-year budget process that imposes caps on spending. The WFPS has been told to budget with a 2 per cent increase for 2020.

Fire-paramedic Chief John Lane said to meet that target the service would have to close Station No. 9, which sits on Marion Street near Dawson Road; would also stop operating one fire truck at Station No. 2 at Watt Street and cancel a consolidation of the two stations.

The head of the city's protection and community services committee acknowledges the call volume in 2019 was "high" and would be fighting to keep all the service's trucks on the road — and perhaps add more.

"The data from the fire department indicates that we need all the trucks that we have, that we potentially need another ladder and we need a fire station in Waverley West. That is a necessary expansion," councillor Sherri Rollins told CBC News.

Protection committee chair Sherri Rollins says a strategic review of where fire halls are needed in Winnipeg is coming in the new year. (Rudy Gauer CBC )

Rollins said she believes the city is expanding and the fire service has to keep up with the growth. She would not speculate on the possibility of closing the St. Boniface station, saying a strategic review of all the fire stations in Winnipeg should be completed and published early in the new year.

"We need to see the plan in terms of the placement of the fire stations. That is part of what should inform the budget discussions," Rollins said. "When you are a growing city; when you have expanded, as we have in Waverley West, that's the data that needs to come bare when you are doing a budget."

Alex Forrest retains some scepticism about the political process unfolding in early 2020. It's a feeling he says is shared across his membership.

"When they look at the TV screen and they see that there's no support from the politicians in this city and that they're actually looking and moving backwards on resources. I worry about their morale because this is a very tough city to fight fires in and they need the support to be able to do their job," Forrest said.


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