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:

http://www.thunderbay.ca/Assets/Living/Fire+$!26+Rescue+Services/docs/2012-2016+Strategic+Master+Fire+Plan.pdf -> Page 12 table 4
http://www.thunderbay.ca/Assets/City+Government/Finance+$!26+Budgets/docs/Budget+2013/2013+Tax+Supported+Community.pdf -> Page 4-2 and 4-3
http://www.tbnewswatch.com/news/290757/Parity-problems
http://www.superiornorthems.com/Assets/Superior+North+EMS/docs/Superior+North+EMS+Strategic+Plan+2013-2017.pdf
http://www.tbnewswatch.com/news/221391/Rising-domestics
http://www.thunderbaypolice.ca/sites/default/files/pdfs/Business%2BPlan%2B2012%2Bto%2B2014.pdf -> page 9,12 and 13
http://www.thunderbay.ca/Assets/City+Government/Finance+$!26+Budgets/docs/Budget+2013/2013+Tax+Supported+Outside+Boards.pdf -> page 9-6 to 9-11

Advertisements

Infill opportunities

Cities across the nation are facing the consequences of an unchecked urban sprawl. Rising costs for all city services are the number 1 problem facing these Councillors and administrators. For many redevelopment means tearing down the old and replacing with new high rise buildings. A perfect example of this is Toronto, who’s downtown has undergone a massive redevelopment. High Rises are all around in Toronto and it is a place of rest, business, homes and entertainment. This wasn’t always the case tho, many people searched for land and cheaper homes during a great expansion. Homes with room for the kids to run around, a nice 2 car garage and 1,800 square feet. This is no different in Thunder Bay, massive growth in the outlying regions have left the city with 2,000 km of roads but limited funds to pay for them. The infrastructure has taken a massive beaten as decision makers grappled with keeping taxes low and rising costs. There are opportunities for the city to open up lands and make them available to developers to reduce the urban expansion. The more people we can keep in city developed lands will help to reduce our tax demands. When we can replace the existing infrastructure instead of putting new stuff in the ground; we all win. Below will be a couple sections across the city that could be opened up to development.

See Below for details
See Below for details

For those who aren’t familiar this area is boulevard lake. My vision for this area is to keep the park as natural as possible for people and the environment to enjoy. That said there is such a large expanse of land available to the city here that a section could be cut for residential use and used to bring in taxes. The development would include 3 condominium buildings which would be 12-15 stories in height overlooking the lake. With limited space available at the waterfront due to industrialization, these could be easy sells. The buildings would be set behind a 10 meter buffer zone of the original trees to provide the feeling that the land is still in its natural state. The only signs of development would be the roadway entering the area and the buildings themselves overlooking the lake. The city is undertaking a redevelopment of the existing infrastructure in the area to make the area more usable for citizens. This includes dredging the lake to make it colder and less likely to be closed due to water borne diseases. This will make the area a destination for people to come and relax who can’t make it down to the marina or other areas. It could easily be expected that the area would come in around the same in terms of tax income for the city as the marina development. An additional 750,000-1 million a year could go a long way in paving roads around the area or helping to upkeep the area. This doesn’t block anyone’s sight lines and could blend in well with the surrounding area.

 

See Below
See Below

This area is completely underdeveloped and hopefully with the 4 laning of the Golf Links road we will see more people move into the area. There is a legitimate debate over the development on the other side as to if it the forested area between the hospital and the residential area should be built up. I think there is an opportunity to keep the green space that is already available by developing the other side of the roadway. There is a huge amount of space available here to put the 6,000 homes that are needed without having to really put much effort to the land in terms of new infrastructure. While there would need to be a relocation of the power lines somewhere else it is likely something that will happen with the development in this area. The blue stays with the commercial development which is ongoing in this area and allows more stores to move in should they want to develop here. This is a perfect area to start a new housing development without expanding our boarders out. This route will also be serviced by transit which could increase the number of riders and its distance to Lakehead University and Confederation College also make it a high reward development.

See Below
See Below

This is kind of a mute point now with the old Sir John A. Macdonald school being taken over by a engineering firm but this just shows another opportunity. There is massive amounts of vacant land in this area that is dominated by the old school. If the original development plan had been accepted with minor changes to protect more green space this could have been a great development. Since the school closed this area has been underutilized as children and families moved out of the area. There is still opportunity to develop this area some more but it will take some work now that the firm said they would ‘protect the area’.

See Below
See Below

To say that this area is a bit of a mess is a understatement. This is one of the oldest ongoing residential developments in the city of Thunder Bay. Original designers thought that the area would look like a cart wheel with all the pegs coming together at one point. It turns out that not too many developers were fond of trying to figure out how to size their houses into lots with 3,5 or less sides. Still to this day there are the original designs slowing down development in this central area. Realtor Vince Mirabelli went to city council on behalf of his client to try and purchase a lot of land in this area. He was told by administration that the city wasn’t sure of what to do with this land because of the future industrial development to the west (left) and commercial to the east (right). The plots were also still divided into many different shapes and sizes and administration felt uneasy selling the lots until they were fixed. The city having these in their possession for close to 70 years and yet the lots are unchanged. This fact is slowing down the development in a perfectly good area for new housing. While there are many imperfections it still can be saved and developed if proper care is taken. The area’s in red are already developed and guesses at to where the properly lines end. The green are areas where I believe development could take place. To try and put industrial in this area is a mistake and wont happen, commercial maybe a little but I’m sure that would be a fight. Developing residential of the same size and lot appropriations as the ones there are the best options. This is another vital area to get going for our upcoming housing issues.

See Below
See Below

In May of 2012, a 100 year flood struck Thunder Bay which flooded many basement apartments and houses. This caused an already tight housing market to shrink significantly for many more people. The area above is close to both Confederation College and Lakehead University. This is a perfect area for student housing to be developed to house a growing population of students who come to Thunder Bay for schooling. Many students were stuck searching for a place to stay before the school year which grew increasingly desperate at a early stage. Students were offering a higher then average amount for rent, they were offering to do house work, repairs or babysit to try and find a reasonable place to stay for a the school year. While this could be reducing in the coming years as homes which were normally available come back; this might not be enough. LU and Confederation College are both growing in the number of students they bring in each year. To accommodate these growing numbers we need to provide affordable housing to students. Chathem-Kent’s college provides townhouses for students to rent during the school year as an option for students who may have families. This provides more options for students but also opens a new source of revenue for the college. This area is perfect for a new development of student housing but again the city is ‘looking at its options when it comes to this area’

If the mining boom comes to fruition there will be close to 20,000 more people living and working in Thunder Bay. We cannot afford to continue building homes on the outskirts of our city. We need to replace the existing infrastructure we already have compared to the expansion of our system. Transit, city taxes, services and more will all benefit from a smaller sized city compared to one spread over a wide area. In another article we will look at areas already developed that could be a potential area for redevelopment (Toronto style).