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The Globe and Mail

Fire station cutbacks would put public in danger, union head says

Toronto Fire Station 424, located at 426 Runnymede Road in Toronto, Ontario on Dec. 7, 2012

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The president of the union representing the city's firefighters said proposed service cuts in the 2013 budget represent a significant threat to the safety of the people of Toronto.

Speaking at a press conference held at the scene of deadly 2011 fire on Wednesday morning, Toronto Professional Fire Fighters' Association president Ed Kennedy listed a number of fires that he said turned fatal because of slow response times caused by staffing shortages.

"Put simply, these cuts will impact our ability to protect the people of Toronto," Mr. Kennedy said.

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A budget briefing note from the fire service targets five trucks for elimination. The single truck at the Runnymede Road firehouse would be removed under the 2013 budget, resulting in the station's closure. The other firehouses that will see truck eliminations are located at 1549 Albion Rd., 5318 Lawrence Ave. E., 840 Gerrard St. E., and 7 Lapsley Rd., near Markham Road and Sheppard Ave.

Fire chief Jim Sales cautiously defended the proposed cuts in a recent interview with The Globe and Mail, citing in particular the Runnymede station's "unique service area." Though the fire service lags behind North American response standards, which both Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Sales acknowledged, three nearby fire stations would lessen the impact on response times in the Runnymede Road area.

The fire service says the cuts will simply "formalize" an already-existing situation, in which several trucks are taken out of service each day because of staffing vacancies. Therefore, the briefing states, the city-wide impact of the cuts "will be marginal."

But according to Mr. Kennedy, the "cold, hard facts" make it clear that the city should be hiring firefighters to fill vacancies, rather than making them permanent. The effort to extinguish a fire at 57 Huron Street, the location of Wednesday's press conference, was severely hampered, Mr. Kennedy said, because a pumper truck from a nearby College Street station was out of service that day due to staffing shortages.

Instead, a truck from a Grosvenor Street firehall, which deputy fire chief Frank Lamie has said is the city's busiest, responded.

Among the other fires cited by Mr. Kennedy were three in 2011: one in March at 73 Humber College Blvd, one in August at 600 Rogers Rd., and one in October at 41 Lakeshore Drive in Etobicoke.

Figures provided by the fire service suggest a significant disparity in call volumes between the targeted stations and some busier firehalls. For instance, the station at 12 Grosvenor Street, near Bay and College streets, received 4,777 calls in 2011, according to Mr. Lamie.

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By comparison, Mr. Lamie said the aerial truck at 5318 Lawrence Avenue East, a station targeted for cuts, had 720 calls in 2011.

Though he defended the cuts as necessary, Mr. Sales described them as the inevitable outcome of the city's request for a zero per cent budget increase over 2012. Council has the authority to dictate service levels, Mr. Sales said, while the fire chief's responsibility is to make do with the resources he is provided.

Councillor Sarah Doucette, whose ward includes the Runnymede Road station, opposes the cuts. She cited the high number of schools located near the Runnymede station, and also mentioned two reports – a fire underwriter's survey done by the insurance industry and a city report exploring possible efficiencies within EMS and fire – due to the city manager's office any day now. "I think we're being a bit premature," she said.

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