Station Relocation

“The only thing harder than moving a fire station out of a neighborhood is to build a fire station in a neighborhood” is a fire service truism. Evaluate the community concerns of a prospective site’s neighborhood. Community outreach efforts are well worth the effort and demonstrating the fire service’s good will may positively impact the community’s receptiveness. Make sure the neighbors understand all of the benefits that come along with adding a fire station to their neighborhood. — Brian Harris and Forest Hooker, Firehouse, “10 Tips for Selecting a Fire Station Site


CBRM is in a hurry to build the new fire station so that the existing station on the Esplanade can be torn down to make way for the new NSCC campus…[District 5 Councilor Eldon] MacDonald couldn’t say whether the public will be consulted before council makes a final decision on the site. — Holly Connors, CBC, “Theatre patrons give thumbs down to proposed Sydney fire station location


The choice of a plot of CBRM-owned land at the corner of Pitt and George as the site of a new Central Fire Station was apparently discussed by council during an in camera meeting on November 4, the agenda for which included:

Sec. 22(2)(a) & (e) – municipal property & contract negotiations (Central Fire Station; Expropriation Second Berth; Centre 200)

Sydney Central Fire Station (Sydney City Station 1)

Sydney Central Fire Station (Sydney City Station 1)

As you know, if you follow politics and live in the CBRM, Section 22 (2) (a) and (e) are exemptions to the open meeting requirements of the Municipal Government Act under which council may meet behind closed doors to discuss matters related to (a) the “acquisition, sale, lease and security of municipal property” or (e) “contract negotiations.”

Councilor Eldon MacDonald told the CBC that council had chosen the Pitt and George Street location based on an evaluation of potential sites done by CBRM staff and the firefighters union and because it is owned by the municipality. Which means, I think, that exemptions (a) and (e) would not apply to discussions about its disposition, as the CBRM is not acquiring or selling or leasing or securing this property — it is simply choosing to use it. This would be true of any other parcel of municipally owned land evaluated as a potential fire station site. So I’ve asked the Municipal Clerk if I may see the background information provided council during that in camera meeting, but I am not holding my breath that I will get it. (Council must ultimately vote on the location in public session, so presumably there will be more information made available at that time — as in, moments before a final decision is made.)

In the meantime (and given the questions raised about the proposed location by the owner — and patrons — of the Highland Arts Theatre) I decided to see what I could find out about how one goes about situating a new fire station. To this end, I spoke with Doug Stern, director of strategic campaigns and media relations for the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the union to which the CBRM’s 64 career firefighters belong (Local 2779).

Stern said that to evaluate potential fire station locations, the IAFF simply enters a lot of relevant data into a Geographic Information System (GIS) program and calculates response times. The goal is to meet the standard established for career fire departments (i.e. departments — like Sydney’s — staffed entirely by career firefighters) by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), a non-profit organization based in Quincy, Massachusetts.

The relevant standard — NFPA 1710 — calls for:

..the arrival of an engine company within a four-minute travel time and/or the initial full alarm assignment within an eight-minute travel time to 90 percent of the incidents;

The NFPA 1710 — and its country cousin, NFPA 1720, the standard for mostly volunteer departments — are explored at some length in the 2016 Fire Services Organizational Review, a “voluminous” (in the words of one of its authors) 299-page document prepared for the CBRM by Peekskill, New York-based Manitou Incorporated.

One of the authors of the report, Charles Jennings, presented its findings to the Fire & Emergency Services Committee on 30 March 2016. I read the report and watched the presentation this week and it really provided some interesting context for this Sydney fire station debate. (As well as allowing me to witness former CAO Michael Merritt in action, talking confidently about what was best for the CBRM although he was probably already conducting his job search and preparing to leave — he quit a year later.)

What’s really striking is that, whereas the organizational review tried to come to grips with the need to amalgamate all (or parts) of the CBRM’s fire services “system” (which the authors said couldn’t actually be described as a “system” because it consists of 34 independent departments “not subject to any overarching direction or capability for unified action”), the decision to relocate the Sydney Fire Station seems to have been made in a vacuum.


Status quo

The first thing I have to point out, though, is the dubious current location of the Sydney Central Fire Station (which I’m going to call Sydney City Station 1 because that’s how it’s referred to in the organizational review).

Back in 2004, Ontario’s Ministry of the Solicitor General provided a set of guidelines “to assist communities in determining the best locations for their fire stations.” (These, according to the website, are currently “under review.”) The guidelines note that:

Distance and time are the primary influencing factors for selecting a fire station site.

Traditionally, apparently, to measure response times, a circle was drawn around the proposed site to “identify the station coverage area.”

Because the circle does not accommodate the normal right angle streets or roads, times will be more accurate if a diamond is used.

To plot the diamond, simply drive in each direction for the amount of time you have allowed for the response coverage, mark the point on a map and join the points using straight lines.

The guidelines include a sample diagram:

But if you jump into a fire truck at Sydney Station 1 and speed west for 4 minutes, you know where you’ll end up:

Sydney Fire Station


This limitation did not go unremarked in the organizational review.


‘Thought experiment’

I have to preface this next part the way Jennings did when he presented it to council, by noting that it is not a recommendation per se but rather “an academic question” that is “more for conceptual purposes.”

He also noted (and it’s the subject of quite a bit of discussion in the report) that the dearth of data being generated by the CBRM’s fire departments makes evaluations of this sort very difficult. For example, although they were able to collect 911 data on dispatch times and the arrival times of the first units at the scenes of incidents, they were not able to access data on the arrival times of subsequent units or on the total number of personnel responding or on the “outcomes” of the incidents (which the report defines as the “actual situation found”).

That said, Manitou created a system for rating the importance of fire stations, then ran a risk analysis and a drive-time analysis, based on a scenario where the CBRM has one, unified, “composite” fire service (mostly volunteer with some career firefighters) to determine the minimal number of fire stations necessary. Here’s a detail from the resulting graphic (I apologize for the quality, the organizational review, like most reports posted to the CBRM website, seems to have been soaked in a puddle overnight before scanning):

Source: Manitou Incorporated

Source: Manitou Incorporated

In case you can’t read that (who am I kidding, I know you can’t read that), here are the stations the computer did not select:

East Division
Tower Road
New Waterford
New Victoria

Central Division
East Bay
Grand Lake Road
Sydney City Station 1

Yes, that’s Sydney City Station 1, otherwise known as the Sydney Central Fire Station, otherwise known as the station we’re about to demolish to make way for the NSCC Marconi Campus.

Why was it not selected? Well, according to the report:

In general, stations were selected or not selected based upon physical factors; in this case, water. Most of the stations not selected were hindered by their restriction of water and other proximal stations able to reach more areas of demand. Such is the case for Sydney City Station 1, and Dominion.

I want to throw in one more (equally messy) graphic — this is the one that shows that over 90% of the structures in the CBRM meet the Fire Underwriters Survey (FUS) guidelines for proximity to a fire station. In presenting this image to the Fire & Emergency Services Committee, Jennings noted that the grey areas are within 5 kilometers and the green areas within 8 kilometers while the orange areas represent places within the specified distance of more than one fire station:


The authors then presented a “modified” scenario in which the condition and capacity of the various fire stations was considered. This version acknowledges that some of the stations not selected are in better physical shape and/or have greater capacity than some of those selected. Under these criteria, the Sydney City Station 1 fares much better.

But this is not pertinent information, given that we are demolishing the Sydney City Station 1, whether or not it is in good condition or has more capacity than other stations.



As noted, the Fire Services Organizational Review didn’t recommend this scenario — it didn’t recommend amalgamating all the fire departments into one as a “near-term action,” explaining that “further study and consultation” was required in the context of “better performance information and GIS analysis.” Nor did it recommend opting for as few fire stations as possible. And although the report was being prepared as the CBRM was discussing moving Sydney Station 2 (Whitney Pier) to its current location, the authors noted that the report was not suggesting that relocations “should be evaluated for service coverage improvement.”

My read is that such a suggestion would be “beyond the scope” of the report because why wouldn’t you evaluate relocations in terms of service coverage improvement?

I have no conclusions to draw today because I don’t know what council discussed when it discussed possible locations for the new Sydney Fire Station — maybe it dusted off the Fire Services Organizational Review during its in camera session and tried to situate what’s happening in Sydney within the broader context of what it hopes to accomplish with fire services across the CBRM. Maybe it tried, as the report practically begged it to, to think like a region rather than a collection of former municipalities. Maybe I’m entirely off base for suggesting a 300-page review of fire services has any relevance to the current discussion of the Sydney Fire Station — but somehow, I think it does.