Most Torontonians assume that our life-or-death fire department is working just fine.
But with the 2013 budget process under way, some are ringing alarm bells about dangerous trends created by the mayor's indiscriminate cuts.
Earlier this year, the Community Development Committee was alerted to the fact that the 2012 operating budget raised the "gapping" number for Toronto Fire Services.
Gapping describes the process of leaving staff vacancies unfilled for a period of time to save money. It turns out that in the case of the fire department, the number of these positions has gone from a manageable 64 to an alarming 132. Budget-makers like gapping as a tactic because it looks like no actual cuts are being made.
In any large organization, employee turnover and the time it takes to recruit replacements create natural gaps. But in the case of TFS, 132 non-existent firefighters means that 10 out of our 128 trucks cannot be staffed and that more trucks are sent out understaffed. (Unlike the heads of police and EMS, the fire chief cannot automatically use overtime to address staffing shortages.)
According to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, all fire trucks in large urban areas are supposed to be staffed with four firefighters, but because of gapping, some run with only three. This compromises effectiveness at the scene of a fire.
Four is the magic number because current safety regulations specify that before firefighters can enter a building, at least two other persons must be assigned to search-and-rescue in case the two inside get injured or trapped.
This is referred to as the "two in, two out" rule. It can only be broken when non-firefighters are known to be trapped inside a building, in which case firefighters won't delay entering whatever their numbers. NFPA standards also mandate that 15 to 17 firefighters should be on the scene of a residential fire within eight minutes. With fewer personnel per truck, this means more trucks are needed. They don't all arrive at a fire at the same time (many fire halls don't have the recommended number of trucks), so some waiting occurs at the scene, and the more this happens, the more city buildings are put at risk.
Then there's the problem of our aging fleet. Last year's budget cut the sum for purchasing fire equipment from $7.2 million to $3.6 million. Once again, we're falling behind. The average age of trucks is currently 12 years - the standard cut-off point for reliability. As vehicles age, they begin to become prone to breakdowns and are more often out of service for repairs, so if something isn't done there could be trouble ahead.
The state of TFS vehicles also affects our home and building insurance rates. Though it doesn't constitute a legal mandate, insurance assessment of risk based on independent NFPA standards provides a benchmark for performance. Insurance assessment doesn't count any truck in the fleet over 15 years old, and trucks between 12 and 15 can only be counted as backup.
Finally, if the capacity of the fire department is diminished, our emergency medical services (EMS) are affected, too. EMS's ambulances are often going call to call and don't have the same standby coverage as TFS.
EMS's response times are often over 10 minutes, whereas TPS can respond in seven minutes or less. In the case of heart attacks and anaphylactic shock, minutes count, and having TFS answer the call saves lives. This isn't to say we won't have to continue to invest more in EMS to service our growing population, and ensure ambulances are close by so traffic delays are reduced, but better use of Toronto fire could save money as well as lives.
The city is currently working with POMAX Consulting to find ways to better coordinate the two services. While amalgamation might promise initial savings, these services can become more inefficient when their mandate gets less focused.
As with many issues at City Hall these days, the cuts to Toronto Fire Services have dangerous long-term repercussions. The difference between fire protection that meets recognized standards and a service that doesn't is about $12 million a year.
The insured value of Toronto buildings runs into the billions of dollars, so it's easy to see that preventing large increases to insurance costs as a result of inadequate fire protection would save taxpayers more than the cost of ensuring that our firefighters can do their job.