On a recent weekday, Jonathon Robinson’s fork hovered over a steaming plate of tortellini casserole as he contemplated which of the high-calorie carb-and-cheese pouches to stab first. And then came the alarm. Instinctively, he tilted one ear towards the loudspeaker. All six fire-fighters seated with him around the chow table did the same.
Highrise alarm, the loudspeaker intoned.
Everyone dropped their forks, pushed out from the table, and walked to the garage of Pumper 314, their lunch interrupted by a call for the third time in the last hour.
“And they say we’re not busy enough,” says Mr. Robinson. “I can’t even start my lunch.”
There’s anxiety here at Pumper 314. Using suspect stats and lazy logic, a growing murmur of politicians, pundits and even union heads have been calling for mass cutbacks and layoffs at Toronto Fire. They argue that the department is a relic of an age when every blaze posed a threat to a city built of tinder-box building materials and that it pads its annual call stats by attending medical calls where firefighters do little more than get in the way of paramedics—a line of reasoning that has created a rift between the fire and EMS unions.
In the coming weeks, Mayor Rob Ford will reveal the breadth of cutbacks he will need to tame the city’s budget deficit. Until the fiscal dust settles, Mr. Robinson and his brethren – joined recently by a high-profile ally at City Hall – will feel under siege trying to justify a livelihood they always thought was an untouchable cornerstone of municipal service.
“I have to say, it’s strange having to defend a job I always thought was an essential service.” said Mr. Robinson, a 22-year veteran of Toronto Fire. “To take some people’s word for it, this city doesn’t need us any more.”
The argument for axing fire budgets is basic: over the years, the number of fires in most major cities have decreased due to modern building materials while fire budgets have headed in the opposite direction. In 2011, Toronto will spend $371-million on the fire department, roughly $100-million more than it spent in 2003.
To make up for the drop in blazes, the theory goes, firefighters are venturing more and more into emergency medical service. Last year, medical calls made up 57 per cent of the roughly 150,000 calls that Toronto firefighter responded to. But Mark Ferguson, head of the paramedics union, has taken to radiowaves and committee meetings in recent months to argue that having firefighters respond to medical calls is both wasteful and ineffective, a job better left to the medical pros at Toronto EMS.
To underscore his point, he regularly unleashes an astonishing stat: “We know that firefighters are only really needed in 1 per cent of the calls they go to,” he said on air recently, restating a figure that’s both damning of Toronto Fire and utterly fictional.
Properly stated, the 1-per-cent figure refers to a study that found Toronto firefighters provide critical lifesaving medical attention in 1.25 per cent of calls. That is, the medical care of fire-fighters saves roughly 1,000 lives a year.
“Now that puts a different spin on that number than what Mark Ferguson would have you believe, doesn’t it,” says Frank Ramagnano, secretary treasurer for the Toronto Professional Firefighters Association. “I know Mark, he’s a friend. But some of what they’re using to undermine us just isn’t the case.”
Mr. Ferguson did not return repeated calls for comment.
Stats aside, paramedics will state openly that fire-fighters, while indispensable on a lot of calls, just don’t have the tools to help in a large chunk of medical calls they respond to.
“We like to call it the circle of caring,” says Mr. MacBride. “We’ll arrive on a scene and there will be four guys there who are excellent at fighting fires, doing auto extraction and high-angle rescues who are just standing around looking at a sick person because they can really do anything but offer supportive words.”
The inter-union rivalry doesn’t end there. While the firefighters welcomed KPMG’s amalgamation proposal and promised to study it, the paramedics immediately went on the defensive. In other cities that have experimented with merging the two emergency services, the fire department has by and large swallowed the smaller EMS branch to disastrous effect. Calgary had to abandon its efforts and Winnipeg only sorted it out after a decade of squabbling and infighting between the two sides.
“The majority of places where this has been tried in Canada, it’s been an utter failure,” said Geoff MacBride, president of the Toronto Paramedic Association.
If firefighters have become a superfluous city service, it certainly wasn’t apparent at Pumper 314. Five calls inside two hours had the hall bustling. And at each call – a couple false alarms and three medical calls where they were first on the scene – the men on the pumper truck performed vital duties.
“There are people out there saying we don’t do enough,” said district chief Paul Duncan, sitting across from Mr. Robinson at the chow table. “And their solution is to stop us from going to medical calls, to actually get us to do less. How does that make any sense?”
The mayor’s office has asked Toronto Fire brass to demonstrate how it could cut 10 per cent from its budget, something Mr. Duncan would be equivalent to eliminating one of the department’s four commands.
The head of the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters Association has gone one further, predicting that such a cut would result in rolling station closures and doubling response times.
It’s always possible both organizations will escape all cuts over the coming weeks and months of budget deliberations, but even that likely won’t repair the rift between them. Of course, that may have been the city’s strategy all along.
“I realize there’s probably some rubbing of hands at City Hall right now,” says Mr. MacBride. “They’re looking at our disagreements saying ‘Excellent, the unions are doing the union-busting for us.’ But I don’t see it that way. We’re not trying to attack the fire department. We are simply trying to defend against poor facts being used to make budget decisions."