Union calls for more staff firefighters in Charlottetown
‘Are we protected? Yes. Can we be better protected? For sure.’
The union representing staff firefighters in Charlottetown is calling on the city to hire more.
The Kent Street fire hall has three staff firefighters on duty during the day and overnight. But in the evenings and on weekends — accounting for about 72 hours a week — there is only one staff firefighter on duty at Station 1.
Spencer Waite, president of the Charlottetown Professional Firefighters Association, says that practice is putting lives at risk.
The union represents about 20 staff firefighters in Charlottetown, including eight full-time and eight part-time firefighters as well as fire inspectors and the fire prevention officer.
"Obviously, that gives us grave concern because during that time period, what can one firefighter do?" said Waite.
"Our training insists that we have four people on scene before we can make a viable rescue, where you have two firefighters available to make entry … so if your first two firefighters get into any kind of trouble, two people are there to back them up and help them if they get in trouble themselves."
Fire calls continue to increase
Waite said the city has skilled and dedicated volunteer firefighters, but volunteers at home cannot be expected to respond as quickly as staff firefighters who are at the fire hall and ready to go.
"They are required to get up out of bed, scrape their windows in the winter time, get dressed, what have you, or leave their place of employment," he said of the volunteers.
"And some folks simply cannot get up and leave all the time either."
There are more than 80 firefighters in the capital city, most of them volunteers.
The number of calls coming into the Charlottetown Fire Department has nearly doubled over the last decade.
In 2009, the fire department responded to 420 calls. That number increased to 707 in 2018.
The city hasn't increased the number of staff firefighters since 2008, when it added two more to its team.
'Citizens' lives are not being put at risk'
Charlottetown Deputy Fire Chief Tim Mamye challenges the union's suggestion that people's lives are being put at risk. He said the department has dozens of volunteer firefighters who respond to calls.
"It's inaccurate," said Mamye. "Citizens' lives are not being put at risk due to our staffing level … We have a full response and we do our best to meet the standard. Once again, it's an assembly of people on scene and we have, as I mentioned, over 40 people responding here at Station 1 to any alarm."
All the staff firefighters are based out of Station 1, the Kent Street location. Station 2, located on St. Peters Road, is completely operated by volunteers.
'Can we be better protected? For sure'
Charlottetown Mayor Philip Brown said the city tried to address the staffing issue last year but couldn't come to an agreement with the union. (That's something the union disputes; Waite says the issue was not discussed in any depth.)
"Are we at a shortage right now? We have a strong volunteer base, almost 70 plus. We're looking at a recruitment campaign in September — hopefully more volunteers will come on board. And in the last year, up until next year, we'll be spending over $3 million in new equipment," said Brown.
Charlottetown is also intending to build a third fire station on the north end of the city, he pointed out.
"Are we protected? Yes. Can we be better protected? For sure."
Contract talks lie ahead
Bob Doiron, who is the city councillor responsible for emergency services, said he believes the city could use more staff firefighters.
"Could we improve services? I believe we could. We have to get the right people at the table, vent concerns and work together on this," he said in a written statement to CBC News.
The union and the city are set to begin contract talks this fall.
Waite said he's optimistic the situation will be addressed then. He said communities half the size of Charlottetown in neighbouring New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have more staff firefighters.
"We have state-of-the-art equipment. It's far overdue [that] staffing needs to be attacked," he said.
"The citizens deserve better. Our firefighters deserve better. It's a real safety concern for everybody."