Calgary’s fire chief says he is feeling optimistic for the fire department heading into 2023 after another record year for emergency responses.
According to Steve Dongworth, the fire department will have responded to around 80,000 calls by year’s end; a jump of 10,000 calls over last year.
“2020 and the years before that we were hovering around the 60,000-calls-per-year mark. We had a jump to around 70,000 calls last year,” Dongworth told Global News. “What we’re predicting is around 80,000 calls this year.
“We’re seeing growth of 10,000 calls per year.”
Dongworth said the increase can be attributed to an approximately 20 per cent rise in fire calls, with more medical calls and crashes on city streets, which the chief attributed to more vehicles being back on the road following the easing of pandemic restrictions earlier this year.
According to data from CFD, calls per 1,000 Calgarians increased to 55.2 from 49.5 last year.
The fire chief also noted a growing trend of social disorder calls in 2022.
“People experiencing homelessness, mental health and addictions, and we’re often first on scene with those people when they need help,” Dongworth said.
Tragically, this year also saw the fire department respond to seven fatal fires after experiencing none in 2021.
Dongworth said it’s a trend the fire department will continue to monitor and work on advocacy and public education on fire prevention.
Continued challenges within Alberta’s healthcare system and ambulance wait times have also resulted in a continued strain on the fire department, which is often now first on-scene.
“We’ve been able to help out, to quite a degree, with particularly the more serious patients, spending time with those patients until paramedics arrive, or on some occasions, taking them to the hospital with appropriate physician guidance,” Dongworth said.
Read more: ‘That day I really wanted EMS’: Parents of 3-year-old taken to hospital in fire truck speak out
Dongworth described 2022 as a “transitional year” for the fire department, with pandemic health measures being lifted, an increase in mental health and overdose calls, and the funding boost for the department from city council in the four-year budget.
The budget, approved by council at the end of November, includes a funding increase of $33 million for the CFD over the next four years.
It also includes $73 million in capital funding to support the construction of new fire stations and fleet maintenance.
Council also included an additional $10 million for the fire department when it pulled money from reserves and surplus funds to finance several civic partners for 2023.
Ward 12 Coun. Evan Spencer said council got an understanding of the struggles facing the fire department during a fire operations tour earlier this year, following several budget adjustments that saw cuts to the firefighter budget.
“They ended up bearing the brunt of some pretty big cuts so they really were in a tough spot, and that became clear on a variety of different occasions,” Spencer told Global News.
The funding will allow the fire department to hire more 184 firefighters over the next four years and bring back two downtown medical response units.
According to Dongworth, the main downtown fire station fields about 10 per cent of the entire department’s call volume, with more than half of those being medical response.
The chief said the funding will also increase resources to four firefighters on each of the department’s ladder trucks to improve the time it takes to form an “effective firefighting force.”
That consists of two fire engines, one aerial truck and a minimum of 12 firefighters for a serious fire.
“We’re nearly 14 minutes against a target of 11 (minutes),” Dongworth said. “That has a real impact on the safety of the community, us being able to protect property and the safety of firefighters.”
Dongworth said the new money in the budget will also help maintain firefighter resources to cover training and reduce the amount of overtime the department is paying out to cover shifts.
The funding boost from city council is one reason Dongworth said he is optimistic heading into the new year.
However, the chief added the men and women in the department are also a reason he feels confident.
“That’s what gets me excited everyday,” Dongworth said.
“The work our people do where they go above and beyond with compassion — on top of the competence they display in getting the job done — the compassion and care they show Calgarians who are having a bad day, if not the worst day of their lives.”