Fire union sounds alarm about staffing levels in wake of Irving refinery fire
Industrial city should have at least 32 more firefighters, says union president
The head of the Saint John firefighters' union is sounding the alarm about staffing shortages following the explosion and fire at the Irving Oil refinery earlier this week.
Peter Alexander says he's proud of his members who raced to the scene, putting themselves in "grave danger" to brave the "inferno."
"Risk a lot to save a lot — that's our philosophy as firefighters."
But he says it's "a miracle" no one was killed, and the fire should serve as a stark reminder of the potential for catastrophic incidents in one of Canada's most industrial cities.
"We do not have enough manpower or personnel to handle the situations of a normal [structure] fire … let alone a major incident like we had on Monday," said Alexander, president of the Saint John Firefighters Association, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 771.
The department has 151 full-time firefighters and 25 holiday relief firefighters. That's down about 60 — or 15 fewer per shift — compared to 20 years ago, because of budget cuts, he said.
Meanwhile, the number of calls has jumped from 2,500 per year to between 6,000 and 10,000.
"So our call load has gone up 300 per cent and our personnel has been cut by 30 per cent."
Last year, the department missed 106 calls to 911 because it didn't have enough firefighters to respond, said Alexander. It happened that the missed calls did not involve fires, but easily could have.
"If you call 911, 'My house is on fire,' and there's nobody [available to respond] … you lose your house. And if somebody's trapped in there, they lose their life."
With industrial calls, such as the refinery explosion that sent flames shooting 30 metres high and sent five people to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, the consequences could be calamitous, he said.
The Irving Oil refinery is the largest in Canada. It employs about 1,400 people and is capable of producing more than 320,000 barrels per day at the sprawling site, which covers more than 300 hectares and has residential neighbourhoods nearby.
Close to 3,000 people were working at the time of the explosion, primarily contractors hired for a massive turnaround maintenance project that's underway.
An investigation into the cause of the blast continues, but officials believe it stemmed from a malfunction in a unit that removes sulphur from diesel.
We're pleased to welcome back our turnaround team, who are resuming their work in a phased approach.- Irving Oil
It was fortunate the blast didn't trigger a chain reaction, said Alexander, given the amount of explosive and flammable products onsite, including gasoline, heating oil, jet fuel, butane and propane.
It took nearly five hours to get the fire under control and some firefighters remained at the scene up until Thursday to deal with any flare-ups.
The refinery has begun to "return to normal and safe operations," Irving Oil posted on Twitter late Thursday afternoon. "We're pleased to welcome back our turnaround team, who are resuming their work in a phased approach."
City has 'the what's what of dangerous goods'
The refinery is just one of several industrial sites in the city with explosive, flammable and corrosive products. Some of the others include the Point Lepreau nuclear generating station, Canaport liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal, the oil-fired Coleson Cove generating station, Irving Pulp & Paper mill, the port and railways.
"It's the what's what of dangerous goods and we have that going through our city," said Alexander.
"Think about the derailment in Quebec and what that did by a number of [crude oil tanker] cars tipping over," he said, referring to the 2013 train derailment in Lac-Mégantic that killed 47 people and wiped out a large portion of the downtown core. The crude oil on the train was destined for the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John.
"These are things that are catastrophic to communities. … You better have the proper response model to deal with any one of those situations."
Alexander contends that should include hiring at least 32 more firefighters but worries the department could instead face cuts in the upcoming city budget.
Mayor Don Darling was unavailable for an interview on Thursday and in an emailed statement did not address Alexander's staffing concerns.
He did say he believes the response to the refinery explosion "went well from a standpoint that there were no fatalities, severe injuries or loss of personal property."
"However, I think we need to take the necessary time to carefully review all aspects of the incident from a due diligence perspective."
After Monday's blast, Darling said he wanted to have "focused discussions" with industry officials and review communications plans.
"It cannot be our norm here that we're having fires and explosions," he had said, referring to a string of industrial incidents in the city in the past year, including explosions at the American Iron & Metal Company Inc. scrap-metal recycling plant on the city's waterfront, an apology from Irving Oil in June for the release of a mystery product from the refinery, and a butane leak at Irving Oil's Saint John East Terminal in January that forced 65 people from their homes for days.
The city has started those discussions with industry, Darling said Thursday.
"I will be providing further comments once we have taken the necessary time to do a thorough review."
Fire Chief Kevin Clifford, who is also the head of the Saint John Emergency Measures Organization, could not immediately be reached for comment, but told council during budget talks last year that previous cuts had already left his department less able to deal with "larger incidents."
At that time, council was planning to cut $1.25 million from the fire department's $22-million budget and warned the department could lose nearly $3 million by the end of 2020.
Clifford said that would have meant cutting 27 firefighters.
"That's basically anywhere between six and eight per platoon. It is going to have an impact, significant impact."
Council reversed the fire cuts when Premier Brian Gallant announced a financial assistance package of up to $22.8 million for the city over three years, with a goal of eliminating "Saint John's structural deficit through growth as quickly as possible."
Alexander said the cuts would have been devastating.
"Why even have a fire department if you're setting us up for failure right out of the gate? We just can't do our job."
The department used to be able to handle two fully-involved structure fires at the same time. Not anymore, said Alexander. Most stations have only four firefighters and one truck.
And while some might argue extra firefighters can be called in as needed to deal with second fires, or car accidents or medical calls, he calls that "playing Russian roulette."
"It's all about response times. We need to be there in minutes, not in 20 minutes after you call somebody in, they have to drive from wherever they're living, getting ready and picking up their gear — by that time, sometimes things can be too late."
It can mean loss of life, properties burning down or environmental damage.
In January, the union said firefighters were "spread alarmingly thin" dealing with the butane leak. They were working "around the clock" evacuating the area and testing for explosive levels of butane.
Firefighters are still stretched and it's starting to take a toll, said Alexander, who is a 30-year veteran and an active member.
When they're fighting fires, they should be taking "rehab" breaks every hour to sit down, catch their breath and drink some water while someone else takes over. But in many cases they're not getting a break for several hours, and in major incidents, sometimes not at all because there's no one else to fill-in, he said.
Firefighting is a 'calling'
They don't walk away because they know if they do, even for a short time, it will put more strain on their colleagues and could result in more property damage.
"In a sense, [they're] almost blackmailed … because of their commitment to the community and to their brothers and sisters," he said.
Similarly, many firefighters are working when they're sick for fear they won't be backfilled and that could result in a truck being taken out of service.
But being overtired can lead to injuries, burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder, said Alexander.
"It's not just a job, it's a calling that we're proud to do. We're proud to protect citizens and be part of that emergency response model, but we have to have the tools, we have to have the personnel."