Abbotsford firefighters’ union says department critically understaffed as city grows

The Abbotsford Firefighters Association says it is being stretched thin by understaffing and mental stress issues among the union's members. City of Abbotsford

As Abbotsford’s population continues to grow, residents are starting to notice long delays in response times from the city’s firefighters.

That’s because Abbotsford is critically lacking resources to properly manage the city, the firefighters’ union says — putting a dangerous strain on crews that’s affecting their mental health.

“We have some large developments and neighbourhoods that aren’t being serviced the way other taxpayers in the city are being serviced,” Tom Dodd, secretary of the Abbotsford Firefighters Association (AFA), said Sunday.

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“The stress that places on our members is a lot to take.”

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According to data from the AFA, there are currently 90 career firefighters in the city, which has a population of roughly 141,500. Of those, 16 firefighters are on duty around the clock.

That pales in comparison to similar-sized Lower Mainland cities like Delta, which boasts 154 career firefighters for a population of 150,000, and Coquitlam, whose population of 110,848 relies on 160 firefighters.

Dodd says while Delta is getting additional resources this year, Abbotsford’s staffing levels are staying stagnant. That’s a problem for a city that plans to grow to 200,000 people over the next 30 years.

“We can’t delay anymore. The drive time is getting longer because the population is getting higher, everything’s getting more dense, more populated, everything is increasing,” he said. “Now’s the time to act.”

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Six new firefighters were hired last year, Dodd said, but that only got the department up to minimal staffing levels. He added he’s been told the fire chief, Don Beer, has asked council for funding to pay for further staffing.

Global News has reached out to Beer and city council for interviews.

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The empty fire hall

Dodd says the biggest issue surrounds Fire Hall No. 7, the new fire fall for the Sandy Hill community that now sits mostly empty and locked.

The city’s 2010 master plan approved staffing for the hall to be completed by 2013, but budgetary concerns forced future councils to delay those plans.

Twenty firefighters are needed to adequately staff the hall, the report said, but current plans now say staffing may not be completed until 2023, or even later.

“The council has done a good job balancing the books and getting the budget back in order,” Dodd said. “Now’s the time to start using that money to get us where we need to be, and much more quickly.”

The union says it now takes initial crews anywhere from eight to 10 minutes to respond to fires in the Sandy Hill area, with response times growing as long as nearly 12 minutes for outer communities like Auguston.

Dodd says the department aims for a seven-minute response time for the first truck, which is only met “a small percentage” of the time.

Mental health

Those six new firefighters hired last year have only barely been able to paper over a growing mental health issue for the department, Dodd said.

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The union says 25 per cent of its members have had to go on stress leave in the last two years alone, owing largely to overwork. Knowing they may not make it to a scene on time to rescue someone also plays a role, Dodd said.

At the same time, he said the the fire chief and council is being supportive.

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“Our programs are getting better every year to address those mental health needs, and that goes for all first responders,” he said.

“The city has been very understanding, and know we need to couple these programs with other needs for the department to see improvements.”

Dodd said he hasn’t had to take any time off himself, but says he would if he felt it was necessary.

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“I feel the same stresses and pressures we’ve been under,” he said. “My family notices, and my wife notices on a daily basis.

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“If I get to the point where I need to take time off, I have no problem with putting my health first. But that doesn’t negate that I’ll still be worrying about my team and my members, and how to support them, too.”

Future growth

Dodd said as Abbotsford grows, it needs to include firefighting resources in its future plans in order to be successful.

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“We need to look at some of the developments out west, we need to look at the industrial growth south of the freeway,” he said.

“We’re going to need to sharpen the pencils and see where we can go to best serve the community.”

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