Ottawa

Has Stittsville outgrown its volunteer fire service?

After a fire destroyed a home and injured two firefighters in Stittsville earlier this week, some people are asking whether the fast-growing suburb has outgrown its volunteer fire service.

2 volunteer firefighters injured Monday when flames destroyed home in rapidly growing suburb

Major housing developments planned along Fernbank Road will put growing pressure on Stittsville's volunteer fire service. (Stu Mills/CBC)

After a fire destroyed a home and injured two firefighters in Stittsville earlier this week, some in the community are asking whether the fast-growing suburb has outgrown its volunteer fire service.

Crews were battling the two-alarm blaze at 24 Snowberry Way Monday when two volunteer firefighters fell through a collapsing floor.

One needed to be rescued from the building and was rushed to hospital, where he was put in an induced coma.

Ottawa Fire Services Chief Gerry Pingatore said Wednesday the more seriously injured firefighter was still in hospital but no longer requires tubes to breathe or eat.

Some were surprised to discover local volunteers, rather than full-time firefighters with the city's fire service, would be called in to battle such a serious blaze within Ottawa's city limits.

I certainly wouldn't want volunteer police.- John Stipetic, Stittsville resident

But the service's 2017 annual report shows that of the 1,537 active firefighters in Ottawa, 36.6 per cent — more than one-third — are volunteers. 

Only 26 of the city's 45 fire stations are staffed entirely by what the service calls "career" firefighters.

Three stations, on Iber Road and Cameron Harvey Drive in Kanata, and Charlemagne Boulevard in Orléans, are classified as "composite" stations, where volunteers are assigned to at least one vehicle.

The rest — 16 in all — are staffed entirely by volunteers. That includes Station 81, the nearest one to Monday's fire in Stittsville.

Station 81 on Stittsville Main Street is staffed entirely by volunteers. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Station 81 is staffed by between 25 and 30 volunteers who are typically trained over a two-year period. In return for their service, they receive a tax benefit and are paid an hourly rate while on active duty.

When they're not at the station, they use a special pager or an app on their phones to notify dispatch whether they're available to respond.

If they don't respond, or can't leave their day jobs to help answer a call, dispatchers can call full-time firefighters at other nearby stations.

Four firefighters are needed to adequately staff each vehicle, and the station keeps three trucks.

Kim Ayotte, deputy chief of the Ottawa Fire Services, said it's an effective system.

"I can tell you that in Ottawa, it works quite well," Ayotte said.

Deputy fire chief Kim Ayotte believes the current mix of professional and volunteer firefighters in the city 'works quite well.' (Stu Mills/CBC)

Population explosion

Stittsville's population is currently around 34,000, a number that's expected to double within the next 20 years.

Once a rural village, Stittsville is rapidly changing, and some residents believe the area's fire service should change as well.

"Why don't they have a regular fire service here?" demanded John Stipetic, who saw the fire trucks race to nearby Snowberry Way on Monday. "We don't live in a rural area, or an isolated area where there is no other option, or this is the best choice. This is part of the City of Ottawa."

Resident John Stipetic believes Stittsville deserves its own full-time fire service. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Stipetic said he only learned about the disparity a short time ago when a vehicle with a flashing green light raced past him on the road. He found out the dash-mounted strobe was issued to volunteers to use when responding to a call.

While he doesn't question the volunteers' bravery or commitment, Stipetic believes Stittsville deserves its own fully staffed fire service.

"I certainly wouldn't want volunteer police," Stipetic said.

Lower tax rate

But one of the reasons Stittsville has a volunteer fire service is that residents enjoy a lower tax rate to make up for some of the urban services they still lack, including fire.

There are currently no plans to replace the volunteers in Stittsville with career firefighters, despite the area's growth.

As far as I'm concerned, Stittsville is being fully protected.- Coun. Shad Qadri

Nor are there signs the volunteers are doing anything but an excellent job keeping the community safe.

According to the most recent audit of response times, conducted two years ago, Station 81 was one of the top-performing volunteer-staffed firehalls in the city.

The city councillor for the area, Shad Qadri, said he understands the anxiety that followed Monday's fire, but said he's pleased with the service the volunteers provide.

"As far as I'm concerned, Stittsville is being fully protected, even though parts of it are covered by the volunteer service," he said.

Stittsville's population of 34,000 is projected to more than double to 70,000 within 20 years. (Stu Mills/CBC)