When paid-on-call volunteers take over from career staff at night and early in the morning, Sooke Fire Rescue fails to meet an eight-minute target, according to a district report.
Data shows the response time for the first unit to respond to a fire or medical emergency ranges from two to four minutes while career staff are on duty and up to 12 to 14 minutes when first responders have to be called from home or work.
In a Fire Master Plan report to Sooke district council, Dave Mitchell of Dave Mitchell and Associates said the slower response times are endemic throughout the province as municipalities grapple with composite fire departments using career and paid-on-call (POC) volunteers.
“The en route times for emergency incidents such as fires, alarms ringing and medical responses are consistently much greater when the career staff are not on duty at the hall,” Mitchell said.
Most fire departments measure success by making it to at least 90 per cent of emergency calls in less than eight minutes. The clock starts when the call reaches the station and ends when the first fire truck pulls up to the scene.
“The goal is to arrive before the fire extends beyond the room of origin, and that’s about eight minutes,” Mitchell said, adding beyond that is where a fire quickly spreads leading to structure loss.
The province’s rural areas are most affected by slow response times.
Sooke Fire Rescue has a service area of 84.9 kilometres, with volunteer firefighters living in all areas of the district, contributing to the slower response times.
“We can’t ask people to live near the firehall, or is it expected,” Fire Chief Ted Ruiter said.
The report suggests revising the department’s staffing model to provide firefighters at Hall No. 1, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to offset the long response times, which could lead to more career firefighters.
“It’s a cost pressure, and how do we address those gaps,” Mayor Maja Tait said.
The Sooke fire department has an operating budget of $2.3 million. The total volume of calls to the fire department went up by 26 per cent in 2021 compared to 2020.
Sooke council initiated the Fire Master Plan study to help guide the fire department through the next 15 years of population and growth.
A review of all aspects of the fire department was conducted to ensure performance standards and guidelines were current and in compliance with provincial regulations.
The work conducted by Dave Mitchell and Associates was lauded by council members, who called it a “solid and thorough report.”
“It’s not the opinion of one person, but a fact-based well-researched document,” Tait said. “It’s not because the fire chief wants more career staff. There is grounded data here that explains why we need to add positions and its rationale.”
In the 154-page study, Mitchell includes 41 recommendations designed to advise council on the fire service and identify mandatory compliance issues.
“Our goal is to protect Sooke,” he said.