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Vancouver fire service operating without 38 firefighters, staff promised by city council

Staff shortage comes as fire and medical calls, including overdoses, escalate this year
Vancouver Fire Chief Karen Fry told council Wednesday that her department needs more firefighters to deal with the increase in fire and medical calls, including overdoses.
Vancouver Fire Rescue Services has operated this year without 38 firefighters and staff it was promised by council in 2018 and is being asked again to hold back hiring any new recruits in 2022.

The staff shortage comes as calls for fires and medical responses — including answering more than 6,900 overdose calls this year — continue to escalate in the city, according to Vancouver Fire Chief Karen Fry, who spoke to council Wednesday about the department’s budget concerns.

Fry said an operational review done of her department several years ago by independent consultant Darkhorse Analytics showed the need for an increase of 100 firefighters and 22 staff between 2019 and 2023.

Staff positions were related to fire prevention, public education, training, analytics, health and wellness and mental health support.

Council approved the implementation in 2018.

“We’re sitting at I believe 35 of that [122] right now and we are in our fourth year of [the implementation],” she said, noting the department is being asked again to hold back on hiring at least five firefighters in 2022. “To take another five firefighters out of our system will just add increased pressure and increase burnout with our staff.”

The Darkhorse report recommended 122 firefighters and staff be phased in over a five-year period, with 22 in 2019, 27 in 2020, 24 in 2021, 27 in 2022 and 22 in 2023.

The department got funding for five positions in 2019 and 30 in 2020. None was hired in 2021. If no frontline firefighters or staff are hired in 2022, that will mean a shortfall of 87 positions going into the 2023 budget cycle.

Medical calls up 81 per cent

Fry said the department is forecasting a call load this year of more than 60,000, a substantial increase over the 41,551 in 2020. Medical responses are up 81 per cent over last year — from 15,141 to 27,381 to date — and fire calls increased from 2,855 to 3,108, with many occurring outdoors and linked to people without homes.

Overtime and firefighters off sick are also up this year, the chief said.

The 6,925 overdose calls to date is the highest number in the department’s history, said Fry, who reminded council of the assessment Dr. Patricia Daly of Vancouver Coastal Health gave in October that the crisis is showing no signs of abating and on track for a record year of deaths.

Response times to medical calls are up by three seconds over last year and fire response times by nine seconds, which Fry attributed to pressures related to the pandemic and overdose crisis.

A slide she used in her presentation said: “Mandates by the provincial government on which calls to respond to and changes in policies and procedures for personal protective equipment, sanitization at the fire halls and changes in rules on self-quarantine and crew deployment are all factors that continue to impact response times and budgets.”

Fry was at city hall Wednesday as part of the annual day every December when the city’s general managers make their budget pitches for 2022 to council. All departments, including the Vancouver Police Department, are being asked to hold back on hiring new employees to offset the losses in revenue sustained by the city during the pandemic.

For the fire department, it means going without $650,000 to pay for new firefighters and $300,000 for two civilian positions, including a mental health support worker. The department’s draft budget for 2022 has been set at $137.2 million.

'We lost 99 lives'

Lee Lax, vice-president of public engagement for the Vancouver Fire Fighters union, local 18, said in a statement Wednesday that firefighters understand the reality of financial pressures facing the city during the pandemic.

But Lax said implementation of the plan to hire the full complement of firefighters endorsed by the previous council is overdue.

“We lost 99 lives in Vancouver during the heat dome,” Lax said. “Those were some of the deadliest days firefighters in Vancouver have ever seen. We could have done more to help but the support wasn’t there.”