Expansion is about ensuring quality of life for volunteers, chief says
Fire Chief Nick Ruller is trying to ensure the well-being of the town's roster of volunteer firefighters by expanding the fire station beside the Niagara-on-the-Lake Community Centre and relocating administration staff.
On Monday, NOTL town councillors unanimously approved a plan to spend $90,000 on a building consultant to expand fire station No. 1 in Old Town.
Ruller said Old Town has seen a drop in volunteers. So there's a need to increase capacity in the area and move administrative staff to the Old Town station, where they can double as active firefighters.
This would help improve response times to emergencies in the town's most densely populated area and alleviate the burden on volunteers from other districts, he said.
Expanding station No. 1 would cost around $1.5 million, according to a low-level estimate included in a staff report.
The chief said there would be minimal upkeep costs, mainly utilities and maintenance, beyond the one-time expansion expense.
For Ruller, the project is all about ensuring the town can maintain the quality of life of its volunteers and be prepared for an expanding NOTL.
“We are constantly faced with trying to manage the growth and the increased demand, as well as meet the public's expectations,” Ruller said during an interview Tuesday.
“It’s really about striking a better balance and ensuring that we don’t take advantage or burn out some of those members that are contributing as volunteers.”
Ruller said emergency calls have been steadily increasing over the last 25 years.
During the period of Oct. 1 to the 18 last year, the department received 20 calls. This year, the number for the same period has already reached 50.
Responder alerts “could go off four or five times a day at one station,” Ruller said.
And with the volunteer model the town employs — there are some 100 volunteers compared to the department's six full-time staff — Ruller stressed the need to find balance.
“The volunteer model relies on the availability of our members' time,” Ruller said.
NOTL’s volunteer firefighters work full-time careers, raise families and respond to the municipality's emergencies.
“The first call can come in at 8 o’clock when you’re getting your kids off to school. So, you run out of the house and you put everyone in a panic as you run out of the house to a fire call,” Ruller told councillors during Monday’s committee of the whole meeting.
“During the day you run a couple more. And then at dinnertime, when you’re on your fourth call and you’re walking out of the house and you’ve got a family that’s relying on you — it can be very demanding for our firefighters.”
“We want to strike a balance and if we can help them strike that balance then that’s what we’ll do.”
A growing number of calls and a reduced number of volunteers can lead to what Ruller referred to as “responder fatigue.”
“We really are trying to keep our finger on the pulse of what's going on from a staffing perspective so we don’t leave ourselves vulnerable,” he told council.
The town has not seen an increase in volunteers to match the growth in calls and some of that can be attributed to the pandemic, Ruller said.
“As a business owner, you may have a hard time finding the best staff right now so you may be taking a more hands-on approach,” he told The Lake Report.
“If I’m a restaurant owner and I’m now more involved in the day-to-day than I was previously, my available time to commit to the fire department is less.”
The changing demographics of Ontario are also a factor in having a steady supply of volunteers.
“We are seeing a lot more dual-income families than if we look back 30 or 40 years ago,” the chief said.
With both parents working, the availability of volunteers to rush off to an emergency call and leave their children alone shrinks.
That highlights the importance of relocating the staff from the town hall in Virgil to the community centre station, a move that was recommended by two separate auditing companies.
Short of not doing anything at all, the move is also the most economically efficient one Ruller could come up with thanks to the volunteer system.
Currently the town pays roughly $470,000 per year in staffing costs for its volunteers. Hiring just four full-time daytime firefighters to buffer the ranks could cost an extra $730,000 per year in salary, benefits and the necessity of promoting one to captain, Ruller said.
The pressures on NOTL’s fire department are unique, Coun. Clare Cameron noted.
As there is no hospital or police headquarters in town, firefighters are truly NOTL’s first responders, heading out to nearly all incidents that occur in town, she said.
“The fire department has to pick up a lot beyond just fire. So, I support this unquestioningly,” Cameron said.
“Why would we not go forward, unquestioning, with an important opportunity to help support one of the operational bulwarks of safety in our community?”
Coun. Erwin Wiens noted the current council has been supportive of the fire department, referring to the recent approval of the department's $800,000 purchase of two new tanker trucks.
Ruller said the potential building expansion could be two years away.
The reason for getting the process started now is so the department could be ready to dig by the time any infrastructure grants or money comes forward for the actual building to be done.
The build isn’t needed immediately but Ruller wants the department to be prepared for the future.
“We are trying to be proactive in how we preserve (the volunteer) model,” he told The Lake Report.
“If we wait until there’s too much demand on too few people, what occurs is it can be damaging for morale and you have less firefighters carrying a larger load.”
“We’re trying to ensure that we operate an efficient organization but not to the point that it creates any fragility.”