By Sue Tiffin
Highland Grove residents are concerned about what they fear is a potential closure of their fire hall while Highlands East councillors and staff say a decision on Station 2 has “absolutely not” been made.
Talk of fire hall closures has been a topic in Highlands East since recommendations in a 2009 master fire plan report created for the municipality by Peter Corfield and Associates included a suggestion of the replacement of Station 1 with a station closer to Cardiff the replacement of Station 4 and the municipal building with a “new structure located on municipally-owned property to the north/east of the present Wilberforce location” and the closure of Station 2 in an effort to reduce costs.
“The basic problem for Highlands East is ‘too many’” reads the plan. “Too many stations too many vehicles and the desire for too many volunteers.” It concludes that “three fire stations fewer fire trucks and fewer firefighters will bring positive results in the long term.”
According to the municipality’s website the five stations in Highlands East are located in Cardiff (Station 1) Highland Grove (Station 2) Gooderham (Station 3) Wilberforce (Station 4) and Paudash (Station 6). Station 5 in Tory Hill was closed – a recommendation included in the Corfield report – and replaced with an EMS base in 2012. Currently 51 firefighters serve the municipality compared to 65 at the time of the report.
The Corfield and Associates report was again presented at the first meeting of a newly established fire committee on March 11. Acting fire chief Chris Baughman advised at that time that the report is dated in terms of costs and call numbers noted and that changes and improvements within the fire department had been made since it was initially published.
“The Municipality of Highlands East is facing a number of serious challenges regarding the continued operation of its fire service in its present structure” reads the report. After consulting with municipal officials and fire officers as well as touring the municipality’s six stations the report notes “the present six fire stations have proven quite costly in dollars and human resources to maintain” and that “a number of the present fire stations would not meet Ontario fire or building code regulations.” It also says that “Highlands East has made some progressive moves toward addressing these issues” such as in the purchase of modern fire equipment.
The fire hall committee was recommended in an ombudsman’s report last October suggesting it “serve as a liaison between the municipality of Highlands East fire department and municipal council.” According to a report to council on Feb. 12 from acting fire chief Chris Baughman the committee’s objectives are “initially to review the effectiveness efficiency and economics of the current Highlands East fire department and provide recommendations to council moving forward. Referencing past studies and the current trends and needs specific to Highlands East” as well as to address concerns outside the normal day-to-day operations.
“It is hoped that this committee will instill a level of confidence both with fire fighters as well as the general public that council is aware of the operations of the fire department” reads the committee’s mandate.
The fire hall committee is made up of Councillor Cam McKenzie as chair and Mayor Dave Burton as co-chair alongside Baughman who is a non-voting member and district chiefs Wayne Galloway Doug Bowen Brian Horner Gary Mount and Brian Woods.
The role of the fire committee includes that it prepare a service delivery review for council’s consideration that includes a minimum of three options and one being status quo and a report on calls from each hall for the past three years as well as a map of all calls for the past three years costing for all options impact to fire coverage and impact to personal home owner insurance.
At the June 10 committee meeting members created fire committee goals within the terms of reference to be approved by council and probed by the committee. Option 1 as mandated by council was to maintain status quo. Option 2 is that instead of having five fire stations for the three response areas that are currently in place there would only be one fire station in each of the three response areas – the location of that station would be determined. Option 3 was to look at moving/disposing of equipment between the current halls while looking for efficiencies that will still meet the minimum standards for required equipment. Option 4 was an option of closing all halls while building a new hall that is centrally located and staffed by full-time firefighters. Option 5 is to have a central station that is staffed by full-time firefighters while still maintaining volunteers at some or all of the existing stations considered as a composite fire department.
McKenzie has said the committee determined the options presented to council not the Corfield report and that the committee was established to address other subjects affecting the fire department as well including wildland fire training recruitment and retention and fire prevention.
Burton has suggested discussions around ice/water training and increased medical training.
Concerned residents have been attending the monthly fire hall meetings making a delegation to ask questions and Station 2 firefighters asked questions of the committee as well making it clear they were not in favour of a closure.
Cheryl Ellis a Highland Grove resident who volunteered on the fire department for six years and whose house was destroyed by fire in recent years said that seeing the Peter Corfield and Associates report come up again has made residents fearful of a potential fire hall closure.
When her spouse had a stroke last August she said the local fire department was first to respond and quickly.
“I called 911 and it just seemed like a blink of an eye and the first response guys were here” she said estimating they arrived within five minutes and crediting them for reducing the effects of the stroke.
Should the Highland Grove fire hall be closed she said the response time from Wilberforce the next closest hall would be significantly longer than from a hall in her own community.
“I feel quite comforted knowing the fellas are just there and they’re so fast” she said.
Ellis who ran against Burton in last year’s election said she thinks an updated cost analysis should be done prior to a decision being made about restructuring.
“You know something I don’t even know how they can be discussing shutting us down because of costs when they haven’t even figured out how much it costs to run the fire house” she said. “Do that first do a cost analysis before anything else.”
Besides data collected by Baughman an upcoming municipal facilities review will be brought to the committee prior to any decision being made according to Burton and McKenzie.
To worries of a fire hall closure Burton said “absolutely not.”
“There’s been absolutely no discussion about closing halls” he told the Echo . “We’re just looking at all the assets we have there which we do have to do under asset management as well as trying to … if there’s ways to cut a few costs we will be looking at that as well.”
Burton said he felt that inaccurate information was being shared on social media but that he welcomed the public to come to the fire committee meetings to hear first-hand the discussions being had.
“I want people to know that this committee’s going to look at our fire department look at the assets we have the halls and our department our personnel and the whole thing trying to make it a better place for our people to live and be safe. Period. There is nothing else there. … we’re just trying to make something we’ve got that is good better.”
An online petition has garnered at press time 86 signatures in the past four months in support of using funds to upgrade halls rather than shut them down in favour of a central hall with one supporter noting “seconds matter” and another signer saying “it could save my [life] one day.”
The fire committee meetings are held on the second Monday of each month. The August meeting was cancelled so the next fire committee meeting takes place on Sept. 9.