The union representing firefighters in Vancouver has endorsed Kennedy Stewart in his re-election bid for mayor and is backing a mix of 10 council candidates from the Greens, OneCity, COPE and ABC Vancouver.
The endorsement of Stewart comes one week after the Vancouver Police Union announced it was supporting ABC Vancouver mayoral candidate Ken Sim, who is seen by Stewart and respondents to recent public opinion polls as the mayor’s main challenger.
“These endorsements span party lines, a testament to all parties running candidates in this election,” said Lee Lax, vice-president of Vancouver Fire Fighters IAFF Local 18 in a news release Sunday.
“They may not agree on all things, but they do agree a properly funded and staffed fire rescue service is vital to our community and our citizens. After two incredibly tough years fighting multiple, overlapping crises we’ve received encouraging support from candidates in nearly every party.”
Added Lax: “Ultimately, we decided to focus our endorsements largely on the trusted city councillors who have voted to increase funding and staffing at Vancouver Fire Rescue Services, supporting the important work our members do in our community every day.”
25 new firefighters
The current council approved for this year’s city budget a $3.1 million boost to the fire department’s $137.2-million net operating budget, allowing 25 new firefighters to be added to the under-served southeast quadrant of the city.
All but two of the 10 council candidates on the union’s endorsement list are incumbents, with Lax saying the union believes a majority of the current council deserves to return and accomplish what they started.
None of the mayor’s council candidates running with Forward Together are on the list. Neither is NPA Coun. Melissa De Genova or Coun. Colleen Hardwick, who left the NPA during her term and is now TEAM for a Livable Vancouver’s mayoral candidate.
The union’s 10 council picks are:
• Iona Bonamis, OneCity
• Sarah Kirby-Yung, ABC Vancouver (incumbent)
• Michael Wiebe, Green Party (incumbent)
• Adriane Carr, Green Party (incumbent)
• Devyani Singh, Green Party
• Lisa Dominato, ABC Vancouver (incumbent)
• Jean Swanson, COPE (incumbent)
• Christine Boyle, OneCity (incumbent)
• Rebecca Bligh, ABC Vancouver (incumbent)
• Pete Fry, Green Party (incumbent)
'Previous parties failed to prioritize'
Lax said the union believes there has been “more movement” from council on firefighters’ concerns in the past four years than under the previous administrations of Vision Vancouver (2008 to 2018) and the NPA (2005 to 2008).
“Where previous parties failed to prioritize the safety of our community, this council has navigated partisanship and multiple crises [and] agreed where the previous governments could not: that a properly funded fire rescue service is one of the most important things a council should ensure,” he said.
The union wants a number of investments from a new council, including:
• Immediate funding for new firefighters and training.
• Collaboration with the provincial and federal governments to invest in prevention measures for mental health and addictions to avoid the strain on emergency services.
• Address the housing and affordability issues that put Vancouver at risk.
• Investing in needed infrastructure upgrades.
• “Concrete climate change mitigation” and leadership efforts.
• Committing to work closely with representatives from firefighters so that policy choices and funding reflect what’s happening on the ground.
During council’s last budget deliberations in December 2021, Fire Chief Karen Fry told the mayor and councillors that the department had operated in 2021 without 38 firefighters and staff it was promised by council in 2018.
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.
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 funds for five positions in 2019 and 30 in 2020. None was hired in 2021.
Record-breaking overdose calls
In her presentation to council, Fry said the department was forecasting a call load in 2021 of more than 60,000, a substantial increase over the 41,551 in 2020.
Medical responses were up 81 per cent over 2020 — from 15,141 to 27,381 as of Dec. 1, 2021 — and fire calls increased from 2,855 to 3,108, with many occurring outdoors and linked to unhoused people.
The 6,925 overdose calls responded to at the time was the highest number in the department’s history.
This year, fire calls are up across the city, particularly in the Downtown Eastside, where Capt. Matthew Trudeau told Vancouver Is Awesome in early August that firefighters responded to 1,016 fires in the community.