Toronto Fire, busy and understaffed during COVID-19, eyes growth in 2021

Toronto Fire Services, hampered by an ongoing staffing shortage and an unusually busy year, is said to be in urgent need of additional funding as the city begins its budget process for 2021.

About 10% of Toronto's fire trucks are unavailable on an average day

Toronto Fire respond to a four-alarm fire in late December, 2020. The service responded to an 'alarming increase in significant fires' last month. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

Toronto Fire Services, hampered by an ongoing staffing shortage and an unusually busy year, is said to be in urgent need of additional funding as the city begins its budget process for 2021.

City officials and firefighters say a continuation of the status quo means the service could experience further difficulties responding to calls and meeting its typical standards.

"The risk is enormous," said Coun. Michael Thompson, who represents Ward 21, Scarborough-Centre and is one of John Tory's deputy mayors. 

"'We know that the potential for more of these fires is there."

Thompson had a motion approved earlier this week at the city's Economic and Community Development Committee asking Toronto Fire to examine staffing issues as the service completes a review of its operations.

In a letter to the committee, Thompson calls on the city to act in the wake of "an alarming increase in significant fires" over the past month. The city has also seen multiple fatal fires since October.

The recent incidents are part of a consistent rise in fire calls since the start of the pandemic.

Figures provided by the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters Association (TPFFA) show calls have increased by approximately 14 per cent every month since restrictions to slow the novel coronavirus went into effect last spring.

TPFFA president Frank Ramagnano attributes that increase to people spending more time at home during the pandemic.

He says the increase in calls has been difficult to manage given the service's ongoing staffing issues.

"We were hit with a perfect storm," Ramagnano said. "And COVID is to blame for some of that."

Toronto Fire was to submit a "transformation plan update" prior to the city's 2021 budget, but that process was delayed due to the pandemic and is now expected next year.

Fire trucks often unavailable

A report commissioned by the TPFFA in October 2020 found that Toronto Fire is dealing with a chronic shortage of firefighters, which leaves the service unable to staff its full complement of fire trucks.

On a given day, around 10 per cent of Toronto's 142 fire trucks are unavailable due to staffing shortages. Ramagnano said that figure climbed to as high as 25 per cent at points last summer.

Those shortages mean fire crews are being moved to new locations around the city more often. In some cases crews are taking longer to respond to calls.

Deputy Mayor Michael Thompson says firefighter staffing levels are a critical challenge facing the city. (Grant Linton/CBC News)

"That doesn't allow us to be able to mitigate those situations as easily as we normally would," Ramagnano said.

"The damage from that fire is going to increase, the liability on the city increases."

The TPFFA report says the city will need to hire about 250 additional firefighters to adequately staff the trucks operated by the service. There were 2,632 firefighters at the start of 2020. 

The salaries for those firefighters made up the bulk of the service's $476.6 million budget in 2020.

City facing difficult 2021 budget

While more precise details will become available as the city begins its budget process next week, Toronto is forecasting a $1.8 billion shortfall in 2021 due to the continued economic fallout of the pandemic.

The city has previously warned that there could be service cuts if the federal and provincial governments do not commit to fully cover this year's shortfall.

Thompson, however, said cutting the city's fire budget should be off the table.

"We do want to ensure that we can tackle the priority items, which is safety," Thompson said. "And it's something that we will be able to do."


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