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The Globe and Mail

Some fire trucks are four times busier than others, data show

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

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Cuts to Toronto Fire Services come before Toronto city council this week, but the union representing the city's firefighters says the decision of politicians should be clear: Reject the reductions and fill staffing vacancies, or put Toronto's citizens in danger.

The matter may not be so simple.

Research by The Globe and Mail shows a marked difference in the level of activity at different stations, with crews seeing up to four times as many emergency calls on a typical day in 2011 than the west-end station targeted for closing. Just over nine years' worth of dispatch data from the Toronto Fire Services, obtained by The Globe and Mail through a freedom of information request, underlines the disparity in workloads.

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The service's own annual reports, meanwhile, show that its staff receive up to eight times as many calls for medical emergencies as they do for reports of fires. For a fire service that lags behind response-time standards set by the National Fire Protection Association, the volume of medical calls answered by expensive firefighting vehicles raises questions about the demand for expensive, specialized firefighting vehicles.

Mayor Rob Ford recently injected an additional $3-million into the proposed 2013 city operating budget, which will allow the fire service to hire 15 fire-prevention officers and 20 new firefighters. But Mr. Ford has stuck by a proposal to close a firehall at 426 Runnymede Road and remove second trucks from four other halls. The cuts, the fire service says, would formalize an already-existing situation, in which several trucks are taken out of service each day due to staffing vacancies.

Data from Toronto Fire Services' Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system between January, 2003 and March, 2012, obtained by The Globe, shows the workload of stations across the city. Each entry shows, among other information, the type of incident reported, the area in which it occurred, and the vehicles dispatched. The entries are made based on the information available at the time of dispatch, and when situations escalate or change, subsequent entries are made in the CAD. Trucks targeted for deletion showed low call volumes, ranging from a truck at 5318 Lawrence Avenue East, which made 720 runs in 2011, according to the briefing note, to a truck at 7 Lapsley Road in Scarborough, which saw 1,690.

Compare that to Pumper 314, located at the downtown 12 Grosvenor Street firehall, which deputy chief Frank Lamie says is the city's busiest. Pumper 314 saw 4,777 calls in 2011, according to Mr. Lamie.

A decade of dispatch data shows that the pumper truck at station 314 saw, typically, four times as many daily dispatches as the truck at the Runnymede hall, according to The Globe's analysis.

On Jan. 21, 2011, crews saw a typical workload for each station. The Runnymede pumper received three dispatch calls: one labelled in the sheet as a "commercial/industrial fire" and two medical calls.

John Creed, a captain at the Runnymede firehall, said four or five calls make for an average day at the station and acknowledged that "there are certainly busier trucks." But he likens the fire service as a whole to an insurance policy: Not always necessary, but vital when things go badly.

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That same day, Pumper 314 was dispatched 13 times to a mixture of reported fires – both commercial and residential – and medical emergencies. The calls were distributed throughout the day, with the first coming shortly after 5:30 a.m., and the last at 11:37 p.m.

Jack Cooper, a firefighter for nearly 34 years and a senior captain at the Grosvenor firehall, spoke briefly to The Globe last week, before being interrupted by a voice crackling over the station's public address system at 7:16 p.m.: A kitchen fire was in progress at a building nearby.

By 8:35, Mr. Cooper's team was back at the station, having responded to two calls for alarms ringing out at two other nearby buildings as well as the kitchen fire. The rapid succession of calls, Mr. Cooper said, was typical.

But for all the difference in call volumes among stations, Mr. Cooper opposes the proposed reductions. To those arguing in favour of reductions, he answers, "It hasn't been their house on fire."

Firefighters' union president Ed Kennedy struck a similar tone last Wednesday when he said the proposed cuts are a threat to Toronto's citizens, and that the city should fill the vacant positions.

Mr. Kennedy also highlighted several fatal fires where, he said, staffing shortages and out-of-service trucks caused delays in the fire service's response. On the day of the Huron Street fire, Mr. Kennedy said, a nearby pumper truck at a College Street station was out of service due to staffing shortages. The Grosvenor Street truck responded instead, but the extra distance meant extra time passed. For Mr. Kennedy, the equation is simple: more staff mean faster response times and fewer lost lives.

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According to the data analyzed by The Globe, one-alarm fires, which typically require fewer staff and vehicles, outnumber all higher alarm blazes put together. Both Mr. Kennedy and city fire chief Jim Sales attributed this to fast intervention from firefighters, which stops blazes from escalating and spreading.

Chief Sales has defended the cuts, explaining that the Runnymede station in particular covers a small and "unique" area, with three nearby stations to pick up the slack. He said the fire service will monitor the impact.

Chief Sales also defended the time that firefighters spend responding to medical calls, saying the network of firehalls, strategically spread throughout the city, allow his staff to respond the quickest in the event of an emergency. Having firefighters act as first responders can also lessen the strain put on paramedics by sometimes negating the need for a second ambulance, he said.

The fire service's 2011 annual general report says reported fires accounted for 10,248 of 145,334 incidents in 2011, based on CAD data, compared to 86,380 medical calls.

This lopsided ratio is not unique. Vancouver's fire department had 28,365 medical calls in 2011, and responded to 1,404 reported fires. In Calgary, fires represented 3.7 per cent of the fire departments responses, according to a 2011 report.

The situation was similar in Winnipeg, says firefighter union president Alex Forrest, before the city amalgamated its fire and emergency medical services under a single service. Currently, 41 Winnipeg fire trucks have a firefighter on board who is also a licensed paramedic and can cancel a call for an ambulance if they are equipped to handle the situation.

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