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Understaffed and overworked, Yellowknife's fire department struggling with basic functions: report

Yellowknife’s fire department is struggling to manage call volume, conduct meaningful training and retain employees, according to a report released on Monday.

New Fire Division Master Plan recommends significant staff increase, at a cost close to $1.3 million

Firefighters respond to an alarm at the CBC building in Yellowknife. A new report calls for eight new firefighters, five new dispatchers and an administrative assistant for the force, which would likely cost around $1.3 million a year. (Mark Rendell CBC)

Yellowknife's fire department is struggling to manage call volume, conduct meaningful training and prevent employee burnout, according to a report released on Monday.

The Yellowknife Fire Division Master Plan, produced by Calgary's Behr Consulting, calls for a significant increase in staff, adding eight new firefighters, five new dispatchers and an administrative assistant, which would likely cost around $1.3 million a year.

"The duty shift is unable to effectively conduct training, perform public education or fire prevention activities, and provide consistent fire suppression response," the report states, citing the huge volume of ambulance calls the force has to deal with. 

"Routine duties and workload such as basic apparatus and equipment maintenance, station upkeep, fire prevention and public education tasks, and administrative duties cannot be completed during shift hours." 

Currently, there are 24 career firefighters in Yellowknife. As a point of comparison, the report points to Spruce Grove, Alberta — "the closest comparator to the YKFD is terms of call volumes" — which has a contingent of 45 career firefighters.  

Low morale

"In all honesty, morale is low," says Christian Bittrolff, union president of International Association of Firefighters, for Yellowknife's Local 2890.  

"The long hours, the just plain frustration that we aren't getting the staff increases that we feel are required here. It has its cumulative toll on people."

That toll may be showing in the high turnover at the department. Since 2010, the department has replaced 19 career firefighters. Since 2007, 40 paid-on-call firefighters have left the program.

"The number of group alerts and the recall of off-duty career staff had a direct impact on the feelings of 'burnout' and complacency among the staff over the past seven years," the report states.

Fire crews fighting a fire that destroyed Fitzgerald Carpeting in Yellowknife in April 2016. (Mitch Wiles/CBC)

Last year alone, the average firefighter worked 208 overtime hours.

"Based on the average shift duration of 12 hours, each firefighter at YKFD worked an additional 17.3 shifts in 2015," the report says.

"All these calls have cumulative impacts on individuals and shift work in general, and extended hours, has an effect on people's sleeping patterns and everything else, so staffing does have a very significant effect on membership," says Bittrolff.

And the call volume pressure has only been increasing in recent years, especially on the ambulance side, the report says.   

"In part, this is due to the 2015 RCMP's policy change for dealing with people of diminished capacity through drugs or alcohol and the homeless... Another contributing factor for the ambulance service could be the increase of seniors and retired people that are staying in the city as opposed to moving south."

Long and lonely dispatcher shifts

Along with firefighters, the dispatch centre, which manages emergency calls, is "not being operated in accordance with recommended standards for required staffing levels," according to the report.

"Dispatchers often work alone and experience long shifts with limited ability to take sufficient breaks from this stressful environment.

"This has potential for developing into long-term physical and emotional illnesses for staff and could result in marginalized performance for this very important key function."

The report recommends adding five dispatchers, at a cost of $405,000.

Fitzgerald Carpeting in flames. (Kevin Woldum/CBC)

'We've requested firefighters several times'

​The issue is not new. A review completed in 2002 called for the minimum platoon number to be raised from three to five. In 2008 that minimum number increased to four. But the department has had little luck pushing city hall for more staff.

"We've requested firefighters several times in the past, I can't remember the recent time. But applying for more firefighters through the budget process has happened," said recently retired fire chief Darcy Hernblad at a city council meeting in August.  
Fire chief Darcy Hernblad retired last week. He'd been Yellowknife's top firefighter since 2010. (CBC)

"I have not had an increase in firefighters, so I don't know where the cut-off would have been. But the requests have gone forward."

Dennis Marchiori, the city's director of public safety, declined to comment on the report, saying via email that he did "not wish to interfere with the process of council doing their review of the document and being able to ask questions of the consultants later next month."

We'll get a fire truck or an ambulance to you. But there is overtime, and the wear and tear on the guys.- Christian  Bittrolff

Ultimately, it's council that has to decide whether or not to approve any staffing increases in the 2017 budget, which is being debated over the next month and a half. 

"I think there's a lot of things that we can do to help take the pressure off [the fire department] that don't necessarily involve increasing staff," said Coun. Julian Morse, pointing to a new plan to address homelessness, which could reduce the number of calls relating to public intoxication. 

Responding to questions about the staffing increase Morse said, "$1.3 million is not an insignificant number. Off the top of my head that's close to a four per cent tax raise... I think council will be looking to keep the budget as low as possible." 

But he added that, "when it comes down to it, public safety is number one."

Firefighters are on the scene of a house fire in Yellowknife. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

Are Yellowknifers in danger?

Bittrolff, the union president, says the situation is bad, but the firefighters are "doing the best they can with what they're given."

"Do I believe the public is in extreme jeopardy by not having staffing? I'd have to say not. We'll get a fire truck or an ambulance to you. But there is overtime, and the wear and tear on the guys, it does have an effect."

He's hoping the new fire chief, John Fredericks, who is expected to arrive early December, will be an ally to the union's push for more staffing. 

"An increase in staffing is what the union believes is the only option to give the citizens of Yellowknife the emergency services they've come to expect and deserve," said Bittrolff.

with files from Pat Kane