CBRM Council: Fire Services a Hot Topic

Editor’s Note: I’m trying something new this week to see how it pans out: I’m writing the first part of this article based on the information attached to the CBRM council agenda for Tuesday’s meeting. I will then write the second part based on what actually unfolds during the meeting.


Part I

Manitou Report

The particular item I want to deal with is 5.1 under “Business Arising”: “Sustainability of Fire Services in Cape Breton Regional Municipality — Phase I,” to be presented by Fire Chief Michael Seth. This business arose from the September 15 meeting of the Fire & Emergency Services Committee which, as the Cape Breton Post reported at the time, voted in favor of sending four recommendations made by the chief to council after changing some “heavy-handed words.”

I watched that meeting in preparation for Tuesday’s council session, and in Chief Seth’s introductory comments I heard the message I’d read in the 2016 Manitou Report (a comprehensive review of CBRM’s Fire Services which I happen to have read, I say that not by way of boast):

When the CBRM was formed in 1995, fire services were spared the process of amalgamation. Modest reforms in the administration of fire services led to the system as it exists today.

While some meaningful change has occurred over these 20 years, fire services remain a system loosely operating under an administrative structure that is not empowered to exercise control, nor are the services adequately funded to permit the Municipality to dictate the terms of service delivery. While the fire service structure that evolved following the formation of the CBRM established some centralized control over budget and rolling stock, it did not enable the Municipality to take an assertive role in establishing standards of service or even frameworks for reporting service delivery information.

What Seth said was:

We have 34 different departments operating within the CBRM, all having their own jurisdiction and having their own ability to set standards in the response framework. However, there’s no baseline, there’s no benchmarking, or anything to come back here to report to council on what is the money being used for, how is it being utilized, or what’s the operational outcome and expectations of every fire department within the CBRM.


Going through the motions

What Seth wants, ultimately, is a unified CBRM Fire Service rather than the current “system” which the Manitou Report said “remains unintegrated” and which:

…does not meet the fundamental requirements to be considered a system, because it is not subject to any overarching direction or capability for unified action. Neither the collective representative system of the Chiefs’ Association nor the limited authority assigned to the Chief-Director are strong enough to overcome the individual interests of the fire departments.

But what he asked the Fire & Emergency Services Committee for in September was the power to gather data from the various departments and money for new software to collect and handle that data.

The committee consists of the chair, Deputy Mayor Earlene MacMullin (who was elected to a second, one-year term as deputy mayor last night); vice chair, District 10 Councilor Darren Bruckschwaiger (who is on sick leave and did not attend the meeting); District 1 Councilor Gordon MacDonald; District 6 Councilor Glenn Paruch; and  District 12 Councilor Lorne Green. Also in attendance was Mayor Amanda McDougall, who is not a member of the committee but has the right to attend — as may any councilor. The committee first divided Seth’s requests into four motions and — after modifying the “heavy-handed” language noted above — voted to send all four to the full council for discussion.

First I’ll show you the motions as passed, then I’ll tell you about the modified language:

Four CBRM council motions re: Fire Services

That third motion originally stated:

Direction for all volunteer departments to adhere to the direction of the Chief/Director as it pertains to this initiative and allow for consequences if failure to abide — impact on grant, registration, or other.

It was the suggestion departments might face “consequences” that Councilor MacDonald and Mayor McDougall objected to, resulting in the motion being edited before it was passed. Seth said he had no problem changing the language, but noted that when he’d sent a questionnaire about a proposed stipend system for volunteers to all 34 departments, he’d received only two responses.

Jim Prince, chief of the Howie Centre Fire Department and chair of the Cape Breton Regional Fire Chiefs Association, agreed upon the need to collect data — insisted upon it, in fact — but wanted to know what the timeframe would be and how it would be “verified.”


User fees

Seth provided council a list of recommendations from the Manitou Report annotated to include his own implementation recommendations and it is striking how often he says something is not possible because he does not have the authority or resources to enact it or there is not enough data to evaluate it properly. (Of course, given his goal is greater authority and better data collection, I guess this isn’t really that striking.)

Seth also attached a list of Operational Recommendations, beginning with four new by-laws which would establish a CBRM Fire Service, update the CBRM Emergency Management Services, establish fees for services and identify the roles and responsibilities of key department personnel including the chief, deputy chiefs, platoon chiefs and manager of emergency management.

Elsewhere (in Appendix E, page 50 of the agenda), Seth provides a list of proposed fees for services, including $125 for copies of reports for owners or insurance companies, or a letter for a liquor license permit or an open-air burning permit. Other fees are steeper: if the fire department responds to an open air burning, there would be a $450 minimum charge, per vehicle, for the first hour and $225 per vehicle for each additional half hour. Accidental false alarm response notifications would carry the same charges as open-fire response and kick in “for every second and subsequent occurrence within a 30-day period.”

Seth also offered recommendations for Operational & Financial Accountability/Efficiency with a big caveat that they are “hypothetical based on observation, basic analysis, and inked to applicable standards and industry best practices.” These include amalgamating a number of existing departments and building new stations to accommodate these amalgamated entities.

Everybody knows this isn’t going to be easy — I mean, it’s been five years since council accepted the Manitou Report and the only recommendations that have been adopted to date have to do with vehicle procurement.

Manitou acknowledged as much in the report. As part of its research, it conducted a fire services members survey, receiving 222 responses from members of every department except Boisdale, Christmas Island, Dominion, Frenchvale and South Bar. Of the respondents (93% of whom were male) 15% were career firefighters and 6% were career firefighters who also volunteer.

A full 77% of respondents considered it “very important” to be part of CBRM fire services, which the authors found encouraging, but 45% said they’d would have to wait and see whether they’d continue to be involved with their department were it to merge with a neighboring department.

And user fees for services funded by taxes are never popular.

But Seth says without significant reforms, Fire & Emergency Services in CBRM will not be sustainable.

Okay, that’s Part I done. Let’s see what council has to say.


Part II

Seth appeared before council on Tuesday and explained that since becoming Fire Chief in 2018, he’s been performing a “high-level” evaluation of CBRM’s fire services, with an eye toward “efficiencies” and improvements, but has found himself stymied by the lack of necessary data.

One thing he has observed, he said, is that “CBRM is very heavy into providing funds for emergency response and very limited in how we conduct our public education and by-law and code enforcement.” (He notes in his Issue Paper that there are two inspectors for the entire municipality.)

He offered council three options, two of which are basically non-options: undertake a methodical evaluation of recommendations moving forward; maintain the status quo and look to tax increases to support it; or remain status quo and become unable to sustain the current level of fire services. Seth told council that the five appendices he’d provided, in the name of transparency, outlined the areas of the system up for evaluation.

Council then took up the four motions in the order noted above. It passed the first two unanimously without discussion. On the third motion — regarding data gathering and consultations with all departments, career and volunteer — District 8 Councilor James Edwards spoke first, saying the issue is a hot topic (“no pun intended”) in his district.

Edwards said he’s had several meetings with “fire chiefs and fire staffs” as well as with Seth himself and feels everyone agrees on the need to evaluate the service but they want to know there will be a “step-by-step process” when it comes to “enacting certain measures.” (The Donkin, Port Morien, Tower Road and Birch Grove departments in Edwards’ district are identified in Seth’s Issue Paper as potential amalgamation targets)

Seth assured him that this would be a “multi-year process” and subject to “a lot of evaluation” and that before any measure was taken, it would be vetted by the Fire & Emergency Services Committee and come before council for discussion. Seth said he hoped to have an initial report to present at the next Fire & Emergency Services Committee meeting but that things would not really get in motion until after the next budget period.

Edwards suggested Seth’s “hypothetical” suggestions for implementations were unnecessary but Deputy Mayor MacMullin made a point of thanking the chief for his transparency and willingness to put the hard possibilities out there, to be “blunt” about what he’s considering. MacMullin also underlined that this is “just the beginning stage” of the process, that some of the recommendations might be enacted but some might not be and some aren’t even within the municipality’s capacity to enact right now. And she said she’s heard from people who dislike some of the recommendations but she’s also heard from people who appreciate them.

District 7 Councilor Steve Parsons asked about the process by which recommendations would be considered, pointing out that all council doesn’t sit on the Fire & Emergency Services Committee (which is kind of the idea of committees) but Mayor McDougall told Parsons that any member of council was welcome to attend committee meetings.

District 9 Councilor Ken Tracey asked if the general public would be involved in the consultations, and Seth said “absolutely.”

District 11 Councilor Darren O’Quinn said there had been a “lot of chatter” in his district about potential closures and asked about the possible effect of station closures on residential insurance rates. Seth said that would be part of their evaluation and if the increase were shown to be “too significant,” he would not be prepared to push forward with a closure.

Council then passed this third motion unanimously and moved on to the fourth motion regarding data collection software.

Councilor Edwards said he was surprised to discover there wasn’t a universal record management system throughout the “fire houses” in CBRM and that he “fully supported” the motion, as did the other councilors who passed it unanimously.

I will give the final word to District 6 Councilor Glenn Paruch, who commended Seth on his work and said the debate around fire services reminded him of the debate “back in the day” over RCMP versus municipal police services:

It’s going to be a bumpy, bumpy road but one that I hope we can all work through and at the end of it there will be some happy people and there won’t be some happy people but at the end of the day we have to remember that this is supposed to be better for the CBRM.

Buckle up.