A new era in public and fire fighter safety is about to begin in Welland, Ontario, following the success of a union-supported initiative by the city’s fire chief that will see significant investments in frontline resources to the city’s understaffed fire department.
In December, Welland’s Budget Committee approved a sweeping plan to significantly bolster fire protection in the Niagara Region city of approximately 60,000 people by adding four new fire fighters this year and eight in each of the next two years.
The plan, which also includes adding two fire prevention officers and an increase in call-back staffing, among other measures, will end decades of low staffing levels and will ultimately result in four fire fighters per vehicle by 2024. Until now, the city had only eight full-time fire fighters on duty, which equates to two per vehicle, well below the NFPA 1710 standard.
“This is basically the first legitimate move in 40 years to bring our staffing up to safe levels,” says Local 481 President Mark Biggins, who is quick to credit Welland Fire Chief Adam Eckhart for championing the initiative and Mayor Frank Campion and the Welland City Council for acting decisively when the facts were laid before them.
“For a long time, we worked with dangerously low staffing levels. As dedicated as our volunteers are, we just can’t count on their numbers on a call,” Biggins says. “I give all the credit to Chief Eckhart; he’s very forward-thinking and he put together a proposal that council couldn’t refuse.”
Chief Eckhart’s detailed 32-page report, presented to the Welland City Council in October, cited increased growth in the city, the fact that modern homes burn much faster and the importance of having four fire fighters on scene quickly as a key element of public and fire fighter safety.
“The current service model does not meet the community’s present-day and future needs, and this staffing shortage increases the risk to fire fighters,” the Chief’s report stated. “Low initial staffing often places them in a decision to assist at increased peril, against industry best practices and departmental procedures.”
The chief’s report also included an IAFF GIS analysis and referenced a ground-breaking 2020 labour arbitration from Sudbury, Ontario, that ordered that city to increase fire department staffing to four fire fighters per vehicle in order to address fire fighter safety.
Biggins explains that Welland used to have a very large industrial base with steel and textile mills, but the industries collapsed and the city was economically depressed for a long time. But more recently, there’s been a resurgence in industrial and residential growth, with over 1,100 building permits issued, including 800 residential units in 2021.
The increased growth, while adding risk, also results in increased tax revenue for the city and other revenue in the form of development charges. Biggins notes that importantly, a portion of Welland’s development charges will be earmarked specifically for fire protection going forward, “so we’re not going to be in a constant state of catch up.”
Biggins says the plan’s approval is finally alleviating his members’ fears about working in an understaffed department, and says he’s grateful to the mayor and council “for having the foresight to go forward with this plan to properly protect the fire fighters and the citizens of Welland.”