Alarums and Excursions

“Alarums and excursions” is an Elizabethan-era stage direction, which Merriam-Webster defines as either “martial sounds and the movement of soldiers across the stage” or “clamor, excitement, and feverish or disordered activity.”

I thought of it this week as I was reading about the CBRM’s decision to locate the new Sydney Central Fire Station on a lot across from the Highland Arts Theatre (HAT), raising the very real possibility that alarums (or more precisely, “alarms”) and excursions will become a regular part of many theater productions, whether the script calls for them or not.

Highland Arts Theatre, Sydney, NS

Highland Arts Theatre, Sydney, NS. (Source: Celtic Colours)

My first question (and it’s almost always my question when it comes to the CBRM council) was: how was this decision made? And the initial answer is: it was made on the basis of a recommendation by Dillon Consulting.

But Dillon Consulting was given two potential sites to consider — the lot (presently a parking lot) across from the HAT and a lot at the corner of George and Glenwood, currently occupied by a Needs Convenience store. So who gave Dillon Consulting those two potential sites?

That answer to that is in a memo to Allan Clarke, CBRM’s manager of buildings and parks, from Dillon:

Dillon Consulting Limited (Dillon) has been requested to review the suitability of the two potential sites for the new Sydney Fire Station No. 1, which have been identified in the report, titled, “Geographic Information System Emergency Services Response Capabilities Analysis: Cape Breton Regional Municipality Fire Services — Sydney, Coxheath and Sydney River“, which was prepared by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) in October of 2019.

Okay, but how did the IAFF “identify” these two sites, out of all the possible sites in the station’s coverage area? I requested a copy of that IAFF study back in December and my request was forwarded to the CAO, but it apparently died on her desk, because I never heard back from her.

But back in December, the CBC’s Wendy Bergfeldt spoke to Jody Wrathall, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 2779, who told her that the George and Pitt site was chosen because “the city owns it, so it’s free land,” whereas the George and Glenwood option was, as Bergfeldt noted, the result of “pure math.” The GIS data pointed to it as a site that would allow firefighters to reach 66% of area structures inside of five minutes compared to 55% for the George and Pitt site.

Asked to explain the IAFF’s preference for the George and Pitt site, Wrathall suggested the 66% number looked “good on paper” but didn’t take a lot of factors (like traffic flows) into consideration.

But if the response time data the study produced is not reliable, then what, exactly, was the point of the study?

My understanding of the IAFF’s methodology, based on a discussion with Doug Stern, the organization’s director of strategic campaigns and media relations, is that they enter a lot of relevant data into their system to calculate response times. How could traffic flows not constitute relevant data?

When Bergfeldt asked why he preferred the Pitt and George location to the Glenwood and George location, Wrathall gave a list of reasons why he preferred the Pitt and George location to the current fire station location on the Esplanade. But — and I think we can all agree on this — the waterfront is a terrible location for a fire station and any station located inland would have an immediate advantage over it in that, you could leave it traveling west and not end up in the harbor.

I should also note that Dillon Consulting recommends the Pitt and George location because it says the Glenwood and George location (even if you bought two properties there) is not big enough to accommodate the station the municipality plans to build.

But again, this raises questions: why would you go ahead with the GIS location study before you knew what size property you required?


Public input

When the new station was discussed during this month’s regular CBRM council meeting, District 8 Councilor Amanda McDougall asked why there had been no public consultation on the choice of site, noting that council had, coincidentally, held a workshop that very morning on the subject of public consultation. Mayor Cecil Clarke directed the question to CAO Marie Walsh who said:

For this particular building, it’s not like it’s a community center or a typical civic building it is a safety-related situation that we relied on experts and expert opinion from a report the [firefighters] union had put forward — so, that’s why we didn’t do a public consultation, I don’t consider it the same as any other building…

We really couldn’t rely on the public to site an emergency services building, that would be our responsibility.

Three things:

First, given that it was, presumably, CBRM staff in consultation with “experts” who situated the existing Sydney Central Fire Station on the waterfront, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the possibility of the public doing a better job.

Second, how does that jibe with what Mayor Cecil Clarke told the CBC’s Tom Ayers back in December?

Clarke said council has not made a decision on the final site. That will come back to council at some point in the near future.

“There’s absolutely going to be public participation once we actually have something to present for decision making,” he said.

“This is all good stuff and we will have a public process for the actual final decision and outcome of a fire station.”

Did Walsh simply overrule him? Can she do that? If the mayor wants public consultation — and the mayor sure sounded like he wanted public consultation two months ago — shouldn’t there have been public consultation? (I mean, the kind that matters, not these farcical “budget consultation” sessions now underway).

And third, how does it jibe with what District 5 Councilor Eldon MacDonald told the CBC’s Holly Conners about the location selection process back in December?

MacDonald said municipal staff and the firefighters union evaluated potential sites based on factors including response times.

“It’s important that people realize that when we have municipally owned land, we have to make those decisions based on what we feel best represents the public at large,” he said.

CLEARLY the overriding factor in this decision was the municipality’s ownership of the land — Walsh as good as admitted this when she was asked, during that same council meeting by District 4 Councilor Steve Gillespie if the CBRM would remain within its budget for this new fire station (the municipality is getting money from the province to fund the new station although we citizens are apparently not allowed to know how much money). Walsh said:

The plan is to definitely stay within budget, I think the big help for us is that we own the land that we’re going to…

But once you’ve admitted that the municipality’s ownership of the land was a factor in the decision, that it wasn’t all based on “expert opinion” and “public safety,” then you’ve blown up your own argument for not allowing the public to participate in the process.


Code of silence

For me, this is the heart of the matter — that so many decisions in this community are top-down. And it’s not just that the community isn’t involved, it’s the community isn’t even informed. Consider, for instance, the reason why we’re building a new fire station — it’s because the provincial government decided to move the NSCC Marconi Campus to the Sydney waterfront.

How was the waterfront location chosen? What other locations were considered? Beats me.

NSCC Marconi Campus (Source: YouTube

NSCC Marconi Campus (Source: YouTube)

I’ve been looking back through the stories on the subject, and I know that in 2018, Dartmouth-based Ekistics Planning and Design (now called, I kid you not, “Fathom Studio”) was awarded a $144,586 contract to “figure out a way to move” the Marconi Campus, currently located next to Cape Breton University (CBU), “to downtown Sydney.”

The Cape Breton Post reported on 23 March 2018:

The study will look at space requirements and potential locations, campus design, student impacts and transportation needs. The province says the work will begin immediately, and will conclude by December.

The study was to have been completed by December 2018, but as late as April 2019 it had not been released and when I contacted the Department of Labour and Advanced Education (which had commissioned it), I was told:

We can confirm we have received the report from Ekistics Plan and Design and we continue to take steps in moving this project forward, including working to identify possible locations. We’ll be happy to reach out once we have a further update to share.

In May, the Post reported that the department “hoped to share an update on the status of the project by July 2019” and Glace Bay MLA Geoff MacLellan “divulged” that “at least three potential sites” had been identified.

Then in July, word of the waterfront location was leaked to the Post, and the official announcement followed in August, but I don’t know if anybody ever saw the Ekistics report (I didn’t) nor do I know what other sites were considered. (I’m going to request a copy of the report, and I apologize to my readers for not having done so earlier.)

And then there’s our new central library, whose location was determined not through any kind of site selection process (and certainly not through one involving public participation) but by dint of a private developer lumping it into a proposal for the Sydney waterfront.

In an age when it has never been easier to share information, the CBRM remains remarkably reluctant to do so. It’s not a good look.