Nova Scotia

Fire services review shows substandard response times in Cumberland County

The review, which was released to council last week, found slower-than-suggested response times, an aging fleet of vehicles and a lack of young recruits.

Review contains more than 200 recommendations to improve fire services throughout municipality

Council for the Municipality of Cumberland commissioned the fire services report in November. The report, released to council last week, makes 200 recommendations, including spending nearly $40 million to replace outdated equipment and infrastructure. (Cassie Williams/CBC)

Only four of the 19 fire departments servicing the Municipality of Cumberland County are meeting both recommended response times and staffing standards for their demand zones, a situation one Nova Scotia fire chief says is unlikely to improve unless more people step up to fight fires.

A municipal fire services review released to council last week found slower-than-suggested response times, an aging fleet of vehicles and a lack of young recruits. It calls for nearly $40 million to replace outdated infrastructure and equipment.

"If we can't get younger members in here, there will be delays," said Oxford fire Chief Trueman Rushton, whose department is largely made up of firefighters who've already served more than 20 years.

"It's going to be rough."

Leicester, Truemanville, Wallace and Westchester were the only fire departments to meet both staffing and response time standards for their demand zones, according to the consultant's report. 

Standards set by non-profit

Standard response times for volunteer firefighting departments are set by the National Fire Protection Association, an international non-profit dedicated to fire safety. Departments are encouraged, but not required, to meet the standards, which differ based on population and building density.

To meet the standard in rural demand zones, like Wentworth, a minimum of six firefighters are required to respond in 14 minutes at least 80 per cent of the time. In suburban demand zones, such as parts of Pugwash, 10 volunteers must respond in 10 minutes, 80 per cent of the time. In urban area demand zones, which a portion of Springhill falls under, the minimum requirement is 15 firefighters in nine minutes, 90 per cent of the time.

The Amherst, Oxford and Five Islands departments were included in the review because they are under contract to protect adjacent areas of the county. The review states a mutual aid system needs to be formalized in writing.

Bill Ireland, director of emergency services for the Municipality of Cumberland County, said holding all volunteer fire departments to the same response time standard isn't as straightforward as it seems on paper.

"Volunteer firefighters in Cumberland County are usually called from home or work into the fire station and then need to travel an extensive distance to reach the site of an emergency," Ireland said. "That isn't something that lines up with the standards well."

Recruitment, retention a challenge

Nearly half of Cumberland's volunteer firefighters are older than 50.

Ireland said recruiting and retaining firefighters is more difficult now than it has been in the past.

"It's hard to find people that have time and aptitude in ability and the desire to give back, especially in something that is as challenging in firefighting where standards are always increasing and there are a lot of training demands," he said.

Fire stations and equipment are also aging.

The review calls for nearly $40 million over 20 years to replace six fire stations, a number of outdated vehicles and firefighting equipment. The Advocate, Joggins, Parrsboro, River Hebert, Wentworth and Westchester fire stations are recommended for replacement in the first 10 years.

"Our fire fleet is aging out," said Rushton. "Our oldest is an 1989 fire truck and it's in pretty rough shape."

Aging fire fleet

The municipality has a fire fleet of 92 vehicles. The average age of the vehicles is nearly 19. The oldest vehicle in service is a 54-year-old seasonal wildland truck. 

The National Fire Protection Association has set the maximum service age for front-line service firefighting vehicles at 15, but there is a process to extend the life to 25 years in lower incident areas like Cumberland.

"Perhaps in the past the municipality hasn't had a solid plan in place to replace and maintain the vehicles," Ireland said. "So that means some of our fleet is getting near the end of its serviceable life."

Council has directed staff to review the more than 200 recommendations within the report and present an implementation plan later this summer.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Will McLernon is a reporter with CBC Nova Scotia. You can reach him at will.mclernon@cbc.ca

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