Councillor pushing Yellowknife to hire firefighters in 'desperately understaffed' department

Firefighters turned up at special council meetings this week in Yellowknife, where councillors discussed whether to put off hiring four new firefighters.

City proposes postponing hiring 4 firefighters by 3 months, which will save about $93K

Jamie Stringer is a local firefighter and vice president of the International Association of Firefighters for Yellowknife's Local 2890. He says firefighters were shocked and frustrated to learn that the plan to hire four new members had been bumped to 2019. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

Firefighters turned up at special council meetings this week in Yellowknife, where councillors were discussing the 2018 draft budget, and whether to put off hiring four new firefighters.

In 2016, the Yellowknife Fire Division's Master Plan, which was produced by a Calgary consulting firm over several months, called on the city to hire eight new firefighters, five dispatchers and an administrative assistant to address understaffing, prevent burnout and deal with the escalation of calls for paramedics.

The City of Yellowknife reached a compromise, hiring four additional firefighters this year, with the intention of hiring another four in October 2018. However, that second hire has been put on hold until January 2019 in the current draft budget.

On Monday, Coun. Shauna Morgan questioned the decision to hold off on hiring at the department, which she said is "desperately understaffed." She brought forward a motion to include the four hires in the 2018 budget.

"To me, it's still concerning that we're playing catch-up on an absolutely critical emergency service," she said.

"I would like to see us bump up these new hires and get some support to the division as soon as we can."

3 month delay saves $93K

The city's senior administrative officer, Sheila Bassi-Kellett, said holding off on hiring four new members for three months will save the administration approximately $93,000. 

She also says firefighters who joined the team this year may need more time to train.

"They started with us over the summer," Bassi-Kellet said. 

"We want to make sure they're fully integrated into the fire department. Bringing too many new staff on within a very ... close window of time can be a challenge to the stability of the fire department.

"So we are thinking in terms of trying to sequence this in a way that's going to be as constructive as possible."

Morgan expressed concerns that if hiring is put off again, the hiring process could take months, or the issue could be pushed to the next council and they might not understand the urgency.

She said staffing is putting an "incredible strain" on existing firefighters and paramedics, and burn-out and high turnover rates are high.

The issue was tabled after Coun. Julian Morse asked if the cost of overtime for firefighters would be reduced with the hiring of full-time staff. In 2015, the Yellowknife Fire Department paid out more than $250,000 for firefighter overtime, according to the master plan.

Bassi-Kellett said she would get council those figures by Tuesday.

Yellowknife firefighters have been attending council meetings since the 2018 draft budget was released last month and it bumped hiring four new members until 2019. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

Firefighters, who have been coming to council since the budget was released last month, showed up at council again on Tuesday evening to show their support for the motion.

Jamie Stringer, a firefighter for 10 years in Yellowknife and vice-president of their local union, said they were shocked and frustrated to learn that the positions had been bumped to 2019.

"It's our safety and the safety of the citizens of Yellowknife and that's why we're [here]," he said.

Stringer said he's disappointed that the momentum they gained last year has now been postponed.

"We've certainly expressed our concerns with the fact that the spots did essentially get axed, so we're just hoping that we get them back on."

In the end, council ran out of time to continue the discussion on Tuesday night. Councillors are holding public budget deliberations until Wednesday.

Adoption of the draft budget is scheduled to take place Dec. 11.

With files from Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi