Understaffed fire department outpaced by city's growth: Richmond Firefighters Association

The number of emergency response firefighters has increased by 10 since 1991

As the number of people and condominiums in Richmond continues to grow, the Richmond Firefighters Association is warning there are not enough firefighters to keep everyone safe.

“It is very concerning to us. The population in the city has grown by tens of thousands of people since 1990, but staffing levels have almost remained the same,” said Cory Parker, president of the Richmond Firefighters Association.

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According to BC Census, Richmond’s population grew by 36 per cent between 1991 and 2016. However, in that same time period, the number of emergency response firefighters in the city has only increased by five per cent, or 10 firefighters for a current total of 201.

Moreover, the daily minimum staffing has remained at 33 since 1991, according to the city.

“We are not able to respond as quickly now, and we are experiencing a service reduction,” said Parker.

For comparison, Parker points to Burnaby, which is similar, but has about 35,000 more people.

“They have the same number of fire halls, but their daily minimum staffing is 51, that’s 18 more than us. That can make a big difference.”

Meanwhile, plans are in place to significantly increase in the number of high rises in the city centre, which will only add to the strain, according to Parker.

“There are 130 high-rise buildings over 35 metres tall in Richmond right now. That’s not including any that are proposed or smaller apartment buildings with four or six floors,” said Parker.

“But current levels of staffing don’t even meet the minimum numbers required for a single high-rise event.”

Along with more condos, traffic has also increased, which has made it harder for fire trucks to get around.

“It slows down our response time, and it’s only going to get worse,” he said, adding that one solution is to have additional locations where fire trucks are placed to get to incidents faster.

Long-time councillors Harold Steves and Bill McNulty both agree that Richmond’s  fire department needs a staffing increase.

“We are understaffed in three areas: the fire department, the police department and bylaw officers. We need to hire more people, it’s as simple as that,” said Steves.

He said there is nothing wrong with density within the city, “as long as we keep up with services, but we are not.

“The city has caught up with some services, such as community facilities, but firefighters, police and bylaw officers come under general taxes, and we haven’t topped up for that.”

McNulty said the understaffing issue was highlighted during the bog fire last summer, when Richmond firefighters had to get help from nearby municipalities to handle another fire incident, which broke out at the same time.

Why Richmond has failed to keep pace with population growth in regards to the fire department, both councillors point it to “keeping taxes down.”

“I think we have tightened our belts too much. Our focus has been on keeping taxes down, and we haven’t been hiring (enough) people,” said Steves.

“We may have to have taxes increased, we may have to cut some projects that are not quite as important, or we may need to get more volunteers so we spend less city money.”

McNulty agrees that the challenges could be “a small tax increase,” or “finding resources within the resources we already have.”

“We’ve just got to reprioritize,” he said.

A report on the number of firefighters in the city has been completed and, according to McNulty, will be discussed by the new council in November.

Mayor Malcolm Brodie said he cannot comment until a personnel review is done,  and that he expects a  personnel requirement and budgetary implementation process to be finished by the end of the year.

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