A problem that needs to be fixed

October 27, 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Mike Pickford

For a community often dubbed as more of a small city these days, Orangeville saw its Council seem to take a significant step backwards in that regard on Tuesday evening. In a tight, 4-3 vote, the municipality essentially decided against bringing its local fire service up to provincial safety standards, all to save a few bucks.

Okay, a few bucks might be pushing it… As he has done for much of my time in Orangeville, local Fire Chief Ron Morden all but begged Council to consider adding eight full-time firefighters to its ranks, at a cost of just over $800,000 in 2018. The request comes as Chief Morden is attempting to bring off-peak response times closer to the provincial average. Pretty reasonable if you ask me.

Currently, the Town has 12 full-time firefighters, who each take turns working shifts daily between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. They do a “fantastic job” according to Chief Morden, posting average response times of in and around four minutes. That’s important when you consider that a typical fire will double in size every 60 seconds.

Now, during off-peak times between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. Orangeville is covered by a troop of 36 volunteer firefighters. All of these members are incredibly well trained and do a phenomenal job protecting the community during the night. There is a problem, however. Average response times during this period stretch to approximately 12 and a half minutes. On Tuesday, Chief Morden noted a typical fire will reach the point of flashover – the process when all contents in a room reach ignition temperature and emit dangerous, highly flammable gases – in around eight minutes. He said the chance of survival after that time for anyone trapped inside is “not very good”.

It should perhaps then be considered something of a miracle that the municipality has not recorded a direct loss of life from a house fire for more than 18 years, especially when you consider there is over a four-minute gap between the point of flashover and the fire department’s average response time.

It is important to note that nobody is criticizing the job Orangeville’s volunteer firefighters do on a nightly basis. It takes an incredibly special person to work all day and then, when they get home, be on call all throughout the night in case they’re needed to respond to a fire.

The problem, unfortunately, is one you simply cannot fix when you rely on a volunteer service. No matter what you do, no matter what measures you take, the reality is that when a call comes in, our volunteer fighters have to get themselves ready, more often than not rising from a slumber, and race to the Fire Hall, located on Dawson Road. Four volunteers must respond before a fire truck can respond. You can see, I’m sure, where problems may arise.

Chief Morden spoke of a recent incident where it took more than 20 minutes for first responders to reach the scene of a fire, something he called “totally unacceptable”. I tend to agree. While our volunteer service undoubtedly does its very best each and every night, I fear that may not be good enough anymore for a community the size of Orangeville. Chief Morden and some members of Council, notably Gail Campbell, Scott Wilson and Sylvia Bradley seem to agree.

It wasn’t very long ago that a majority of Council voted in favour of keeping the Orangeville Police Service. The reason for that decision was largely attributed to the force’s impeccable response times within the community. It seems strange then that, when given the chance to drastically improve the response times of an equally important emergency service provider, Council neglected to do so.

Admittedly, it is easy for me, as a relative outsider looking in, to criticize the decisions of Council. I don’t do it often. However, when you consider the municipality has an annual operating budget of more than $34 million, it seems madness to me that we are unable to come up with an additional $800,000 to enhance our fire service. The argument that some members put forward was that the municipality could not afford this added cost, which was slated to rise to almost $1.2 million in 2022. Even if they added these eight full-time firefighters, fire services would cost the Town just over $4 million in 2018 – less than half of what it is currently paying for its police service.

If the decision was simply about money, which, by all accounts, it appears to be, then I believe Town Hall should be looking to tighten its belt in other areas first. There are 22 departments listed in the Town’s 2018 budget, all but the local cemetery will cost more than $100,000 to upkeep in 2018. More than $6.1 million has been set aside for Corporate Allocations, almost $3.7 million for Parks and Recreation and over $1.8 million for Library Services. The Treasury department is slated to spend around $900,000, while almost $750,000 has been set aside for Bylaw Enforcement.

I understand that it is difficult to take money away once it has already been allocated. Jobs have been created, positions have been filled, I get that. I know that money has to be spent to ensure the municipality is able to run properly and efficiently. One thing that caught my attention, though, is that, in total, 12 of the Town’s 22 departments has requested an increase in funding for 2018. The total amount of that increase is $843,000 – money that would pay for eight new full-time firefighters.

It’s budget time. Difficult decisions have to be made. However, I don’t believe this was one of them. For $800,000, the Town could improve its fire service tenfold, reducing the risk of tragedy striking. It begs the question – what is it going to take before this issue of extended response times in the evening is rectified? I think I know the answer. I truly, truly hope I’m wrong.


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