The Firefighter Dilemma

They’re big, strong, well trained and the ladies love them. Fire Departments across the world are well known and loved by the population because of the job they do. City administration on the other hand is starting to fall out of love with the fire department along with the other emergency services. It costs roughly 200 dollars a month to own a home in Thunder Bay. The money is spread throughout many different sectors and programs that the city offers. The money is used to repave streets, fix potholes and replace the broken bench at the park. The largest portion of your monthly bill goes to emergency services (65 dollars monthly). This works out to an annual basis of 33% of annual tax bill headed to police, fire and EMS. Now, these 3 services are all incredibly important and necessary but annual increases are forcing cities to cut in other areas to service these. Mainly due to wage increases and OT the price of policing, providing fire services and medical support continue to go up. One would think that the increase in wages is due to an increase in the work loads that these services provide. That assumption is sort of true and this is where the dilemma comes in.

Thunder Bay Fire and Rescue’s budget is roughly 25 million dollars which is an increase of 0.9% or 223,100 from last year. Thunder Bay Fire and Rescue responded to 7577 calls in 2010 (latest numbers available) or roughly $3300 per attended call. Their call rate increased from 2009 by almost 700 calls but 500 of those calls were medical in which EMS and Police would have responded as well. Calls attended (minus medical) were 3538 in 2010 which include 446 calls were they assisted or were cancelled on the way to the call. That increases the cost per call to $7066 dollars per response by a truck and its crew. Looking at the annual responses by the Fire Department since 2001 the biggest jump in calls has been medical. Of which they provide first response and basic medical attention. Fire costs in Thunder Bay are more expensive then other cities because of the sure size and layout of the city. Merging 2 into 1 and then have the population stagnate is one reason that costs are much higher then communities with similar populations. Just recently the fire department was given parity with local police officers which means a 6 million dollar cost increase over the contract (ending in 2014). That would push Thunder Bay fire to 31 million dollars annually in annual costs come 2014. So we have determined that the cost of operating a fire department in Thunder Bay is extremely expensive and that calls have remained relatively stable. This is the point where I believe we need to look at cutting costs within the Fire Department and transferring the costs to other organizations. Reducing the number of positions within Thunder Bay Fire will be the easiest way to reduce costs without affecting Fire response too much. Thunder Bay Fire has 210 members which is roughly the same as Thunder Bay Police currently have. So if we were to cut from Fire where should it go.

An increased budget should be given to Thunder Bay Police and Superior North EMS. This would allow them to hire more staff and deal with the crushing workload they are facing.

EMS responds to 25,000 calls a year with 190 front line staff. Their budget was 7.3 million dollars from the City of Thunder Bay (more from outlying communities) which increased 8.4% or $568,100. I was unable to find information on the level of calls from the same period as Thunder Bay Fire provided. I was able to find their future growth in calls and they believe it to be staggering. Superior North EMS calls the next 10 years the ‘age tsunami’ as many in Thunder Bay grow beyond the 65+ range and become “super-users” of EMS resources. The call volumes of 911 calls are expected to rise substantially while their resources continue to be stretched by a slow turn around rate at the hospital, and aging population and burn out by paramedics. If we were to reduce the costs associated with Thunder Bay Fire I believe that this is where a majority of the money should be spent. Thunder Bay’s population is aging and the resources are being stretched to their limit. If we don’t provide the service with an adequate amount of money it will break and fall apart. This service is expecting major jump in call volume while the Fire department is seeing a steady volume of calls. We can trim at the fire service in order to provide the necessary tools where they are needed the most. Superior North EMS average cost per call is $292 dollars per call which is much lower then the $3300 it costs for the Fire Department. Many of the calls they both respond too with EMS taking over and providing more extensive medical services. There is an opportunity to provide better medical care by giving paramedics the money they need to deal with the upcoming ‘age tsunami’.

Thunder Bay Police are struggling to meet the demand that the social issues of Thunder Bay are bringing on the community. More and more Thunder Bay Police are being called to deal with people who are intoxicated in a public place. The addictions issue in Thunder Bay is crushing Police, EMS and hospital resources as they deal with these people. Thunder Bay has one of the highest custody rates for a public intoxication charge then anywhere in the province. Per 100,000 people Thunder Bay Police dealt with 5,695 calls where Toronto Police only dealt with 792. Call volumes have remained relatively the same since 2006 being just north of 50,000 a year. Reportable crimes have increased though since 2006 crossing the 26,000 mark annually. Thunder Bay Police’s annual budget is 35.2 million dollars of which a majority like all departments is wages. Average cost per call is $704 when dealing with the 50,000 + calls to Thunder Bay Police or $1353 when dealing with a reportable call. Murders and domestics have been an increased issue for Thunder Bay Police to deal with above everything else. Since 2010 there have been 15 murders in Thunder Bay of which 13 have had someone charged as a result of their murder. Murders are a huge resource drain on police forces as many officers are involved in the investigation of the scene and after work. It also ties up many officers time as a result for court purposes. Domestics are another issue plaguing Thunder Bay of which many are a result of the social issues facing the city. Thunder Bay Police investigated 1,104 cases in 2004 and that number has jumped to 2,218 in 6 years. Domestics on average can take an officer off the road for 6-8 hours (almost a full shift) and have gotten so bad that Thunder Bay Police have dedicated a unit to deal with domestics now. These numbers are expected to increase as the social problems in this city continue to get worse. Talking to a Thunder Bay Police officer he said “Things are only getting worse, this year is the busiest I have ever been but I say that every year. There are more calls and we have less officers on the road” – 7 year veteran of Thunder Bay Police.

This blog post is not meant to say that Thunder Bay Fire doesn’t do a good job or doesn’t deserve the wages they earn. If a perfect world we could keep paying them that and hire on more to make their jobs easier but this is not a perfect world. We need to make the tough decisions in order to have a strong emergency service in the future. We need to use the stats to make the proper decisions and the tough ones. Thunder Bay fire’s calls are likely to remain stable which means there is room to cut and save some money for other departments whose calls are increasing. I thank all of the emergency services for the job that they do and am glad that there are people willing to do those jobs. We need to make the tough decisions and cut where we can to provide for those who need it. With an aging population and the expectation that the population will drop there comes a time when the money wont be there and cuts will be much more severe then if we do it now.

I would like to know the thoughts of any emergency responders on this topic. Whats it like in your city? Whats your city doing about it. Thunder Bay Fire/EMS and Police what are your thoughts on this topic.

References:$!26+Rescue+Services/docs/2012-2016+Strategic+Master+Fire+Plan.pdf -> Page 12 table 4$!26+Budgets/docs/Budget+2013/2013+Tax+Supported+Community.pdf -> Page 4-2 and 4-3 -> page 9,12 and 13$!26+Budgets/docs/Budget+2013/2013+Tax+Supported+Outside+Boards.pdf -> page 9-6 to 9-11


3 thoughts on “The Firefighter Dilemma

  1. I believe this blog post is merely touching peripherally on what is the proverbial “800 pound gorilla in the room” namely that the promises made, whether it be public services, pensions etc etc are not going to be kept because of the heavy debt burden in all societies. From individual persons up to governments everybody is more or less broke. Speaking from my area of expertise, which is healthcare, I can tell you that our present system was developed at a time when demographics and economics were much different than today. Back then you had a large proportion of relatively healthy people who paid into a system that took care of a relatively small proportion of sick people. Fast forward to today and the dynamic has changed dramatically. The “population pyramid” as I like to call it, has changed shape and now no longer has a nice broad base, but instead is starting to look more and more like an inverted pyramid. Add to this the explosion in costs due to new treatments and medications, the fact that our population is engaging in increasingly unhealthy lifestyles etc etc and you have a system that is going to hit the wall in the next few years.
    A great blog for you and your readers to get a real idea of what’s going on in healthcare is

    Meanwhile our politicians whose main goal in life seems to be to do whatever it takes to get reelected, don’t have the courage to tell the public how dire things really are.
    With politicians abetted by a mainstream media that focuses on endless trivial sound bytes instead of investigative journalism, the “average Joe” has no idea of what’s going to hit him in the next few years. The situation you see unfolding in Greece and Spain is merely a foreshadowing of our own fate.
    I had an interesting conversation with my mechanic the other day. I asked him if he was busy and he said yes and I assumed it was because a lot of older “clunkers” were coming in. To my great surprise he said he was seeing lots of newer vehicles coming in for big repairs. I wondered how could that be. He said it’s because people are buying/leasing the most expensive vehicle that they can (barely) afford and it leaves nothing in their budget for routine maintenance like oil changes. I guess that’s the “gotta have the best right now” mentality of people today.
    Here’s a few more links to excellent blogs if you really want to know what’;s going on in the worlds of finance and politics

    One of my other passions is reading about computer security issues so here’s a couple of my favourite blogs for that

    Enjoy the great weather we’re having this weekend Thunder Bay and happy reading!

    1. Thank you for the links. I will be sure to check them out. Obviously there are more then numbers when it comes to these aspects but that is all I could easily provide. Getting more information from the inside like you provided is what people need to hear.

      I think its sad that politicians can’t make decisions that are necessary because they are afraid of losing their jobs. If its necessary then we need to do it no matter what. We elect these people to make the tough decisions and we can’t cut them every time they make a hard decision. We need to cut them when they make dumb decisions like the gas plant cancellations.

      Enjoy the weather. Hopefully it stays!

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