Fire Response “Fake News”

Good public policy is based on facts. Often times the big challenges for a Councillor are sifting through what is fact and what is fiction. Unfortunately, when decisive issues come before Council we see lobby efforts that try to blur the lines of what is real and what isn’t. On Monday, March 5th the Planning and Urban Development Committee will be having a discussion about fire responses, specifically in new growth areas. The “fake news” and sensationalism about what may or may not be considered by committee has already begun.

I’ll give you an example. Yesterday at about 4PM I received a Facebook message saying that Council had approved changing fire response times and that people were going to die and houses were going to burn down and that I should be apologizing for that decision. How am I even supposed to respond to that? The entire post suggested to me that there was some rather lazy lobbying going on that decided to ignore the facts that will be coming forward. I’m amazed at the accusations being thrown around especially considering the report and recommendations weren’t public yet, nor had Council made any decisions. As I stated above – the item will come to committee on Monday and to Council in a few weeks.

Seeing as I have been directly involved in discussions about how we address fire response in developing areas, I want to set the record straight.

What Is Committee Considering?

Council has had a number of conversations about how we address fire response in new developing areas. The interpretation of the current framework would suggest that a fire hall as “leading infrastructure” which means we need to build a fire hall before anything else goes in place. From a cost perspective, that makes developing in new areas difficult. In most, it not all other jurisdictions we will see an area develop and space for a fire hall set aside for the future. Once a tax base is created and an appropriate call volume, a fire hall will be brought online.

In 2008 Council passed an aspirational target for fire response. This target was 7 minutes, 90% of the time. Over time it seems that this aspirational target has evolved into a legislated threshold where new development is approved or declined. That is not consistent with the provisions of the Alberta Building Code which broadly suggests that homes can be built safely up to a 10-minute response time window without additional measures applied to the building

On Monday committee will see a recommendation that will affix our development approvals to the Alberta Building Code. The request IS NOT to change our fire response target to 10 minutes. Upon full build out a community WILL need to fall within the 7-minute target. But new growth areas should be allowed to proceed within the context of the Alberta Building Code. Going into our discussion on Monday, we need to keep sight of the recommendations before us and clearly understand what they mean. Committee is also an opportunity to hear from members of the public and various interest groups that have a stake in this decision. But as I stated above, disseminating fact from fiction will be critically important.

How does Calgary compare to other jurisdictions?

Calgary is one of the only major urban centres in Canada that refuses development beyond the 7-minute response targets. In nearly all other examples development is allowed up to what is mandated by provincial building codes. The specific trigger for a fire hall being built differs from municipality to municipality, but only Calgary uses the aspirational target as a veto over development approvals.

Managing the hysteria

I want to point back to some of the lobbying efforts that aren’t interested in exploring the facts on this issue. Here are some of the points that I’m hearing:

The difference in medical response outcomes differs greatly from 7-10 minutes:

The common line I’m hearing is that this decision means that grandma is going to die because responders won’t get there soon enough. Frankly, I’m not seeing this claim backed by the evidence. Studies have shown that the real critical response time for most medical emergencies is actually 5 minutes and that there is virtually no difference in patient outcomes between 7 minutes and 10 minutes. I’d like to explore this conversation further at committee on Monday to understand why this is a justification for approval or denying future development. I also need to point out that medical response is a provincial responsibility and should be supported accordingly.

We are making our communities less safe:

I don’t buy this argument for a moment. While fire department call volume may be up, the volume to respond to fires is down. That’s because of many of the modern fire mitigation practices that are now in place. Smoke/CO2 detectors are fixtures in all residential dwellings and some new developments are even considering things like residential sprinklers. Technology and innovation have made a big difference in how we respond to emergencies and how we ensure that our communities are safe.

The fire department needs to be supported better:

I agree with this perspective entirely. I think the fire department has been unfairly used as a pawn to deter growth in new developing areas. And deterring growth has been to the detriment of the fire department. The estimated operating costs for a fire hall is $3.5M. So how do we pay for that? If we want to build more fire halls and have more areas supported, there needs to be adjacent development that would help the fire hall pay for itself. By stalling the approval system, we never build a tax base that allows for a new fire hall to be supported. If we approve development up to the Alberta Building Code standards we will grow a tax base in areas that upon full build out will fall into a 7-minute response target. This means more fire halls and the resources to pay for them.

Where would I like to see this go?

Changing our policy to allow development up to the Alberta Building Code is a step in the right direction. If we want to provide services to an area, we need to build up a surrounding tax base to pay for it all. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that other areas of the city should be subsidizing services for developing areas. But under our current framework that would need to be the case in many situations. A fire hall is one of the most important services in an area, but it also one of the costliest. We need to get these services in place, but as I have stated over and over again – we must find a way to pay for them.

By identifying a fire hall as “lagging infrastructure” instead of “leading infrastructure” we create a more sustainable growth model for our city. These new areas will eventually fall within that 7-minute target as they grow out incrementally. Frankly, I’m not interested in seeing more fire halls in the middle of nowhere like we have in Seton. I don’t think that is good planning, nor do I think that is a good model for city growth.

Seton Fire Hall outlined in red.

When I make decisions on Council, I need to make them based on facts. Many of the arguments that I’m seeing against these recommendations are either playing loose with the facts or trying to pull on emotional heart strings. Council needs to commit to making evidence based decisions. If that’s the lens we view this particular issue through, I see no reason why we shouldn’t allow development to continue up to the Alberta Building Code standards. Not only does this contribute to local economic activity, it also helps build a sustainable tax base that lessens the tax burden on everyone else in the city.

I’m not going to let the hysteria distract me from the real issues at hand here. While I appreciate the need for opposing views on contentious issues, my real hope is that we can all approach this issue logically. I’m not interested in going to war with the fire department, because I don’t think that’s necessary. What is coming before us will create a system where I believe everyone can benefit – that should really be the focus here.