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Calgary’s firefighter union calls for action from fire chief amid funding concerns

In a letter to the Calgary Firefighters Association membership, the union's president said decisions by the city and the fire chief have firefighters at a "breaking point.". Devon Simmons / Global News

The Calgary Firefighters Association is calling for action from Calgary Fire Department Chief Steve Dongworth amid concerns over the fire department’s funding in the upcoming city budget.

In a letter sent on Monday to the union’s membership obtained by Global News, association president Codey McIntyre said decisions by city administration and the fire chief “are continuing to push Calgary Firefighters to the breaking point.”

“The fire chief has not been allowed to speak about these cuts nor to these ongoing issues,” McIntyre said in the letter. “The fire chief is not standing up for public and firefighter safety.”

The letter outlined a “history of cuts” the fire department has undergone since 2015 and “under-resourced” divisions like training and hazardous materials.

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According to McIntyre, the fire department budget has been reduced by $30 million since 2015, including the elimination of 185 department positions since that same year. McIntyre said five fire trucks were also cut in 2019, and added that Calgary has the lowest staffed metropolitan fire department in the country.

Despite this, the 2022 Spring Pulse Survey of Calgarians resulted in a 96 per cent satisfaction rating for the fire department’s emergency response amongst residents.

In the most recent budget adjustment in 2021, city council voted unanimously for a $13 million increase to the fire department’s budget to cover the addition of 56 firefighters and training officers.

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The letter to members comes just days after revelations of a request from the fire department to help reduce response times may largely go unfunded in the upcoming four-year budget.

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The total cost of the funding options came to $52 million in operating funds and $51 million in capital funds with the addition of 315 firefighters over the next four years.

Global News obtained preliminary budget figures that show city administration is recommending a deferral of the capital funding request to the next four-year budget cycle, while the department could receive $16.2 million of their operating funding request split between 2025 and 2026.

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However, City of Calgary officials told Global News the city’s budget and service plans “are still under development.”

“The fire chief has been told by city administration to pare down his budget once again and to save it for the next business cycle in four years,” McIntyre’s letter said. “Where is Calgary’s fire chief in this discussion and how is he looking out for public and firefighter safety? We need a fire chief who will vocally support his firefighters and stand up for the safety of us and all Calgarians.”

The letter stated the goal of the firefighters association is to get to a phased implementation of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards of four people on all fire engine, rescue and ladder trucks.

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Earlier this year, city administration determined NFPA standards would not be feasible in Calgary due to the funding required and an estimated time period of 15 to 20 years to implement them.

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In an interview with Global News, McIntyre said he wants to see Dongworth speak up both in public and behind closed doors to advocate for more resources for the fire department.

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“We’ve seen this time and time again and we’ve been communicating it for two years,” McIntyre said. “I’m asking the fire chief to stand up and fight for the safety of the firefighters and the safety of all Calgarians.”

In a statement to Global News, Dongworth said he couldn’t comment on the upcoming budget as it is still in development and additional details remain confidential.

“However, there is no question that the Calgary Fire Department needs significant additional investment to keep pace with record call levels in an increasingly complex world,” Dongworth’s statement read. “The challenge continues to be securing those investments in a constrained financial environment with only so many dollars to go around with many competing priorities.”

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Dongworth said the budget recommended by city administration to council won’t include cuts and will include funding increases for the fire department over the next four years.

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“As one of only nine fire services in Canada to achieve international accreditation, we know how important our fire service is to Calgarians and we continue to serve the community with innovation, flexibility, and by being proactive in the way we plan for and respond to community risk and emergencies,” Dongworth added.

The letter to members also outlined the union’s plan to advocate for more funding ahead of budget talks, which includes community outreach, targeted digital advertising, direct discussions with city councillors, as well as having an ongoing presence at city council meetings.

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McIntyre urged local firefighters to share their experiences on social media as part of their advocacy.

City administration will present the proposed budget to city council for the first time on November 8, and deliberations are scheduled to begin on November 21.

According to McIntyre, the firefighters association will present a public submission during those budget talks.

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