Can Cornwall afford ‘everything for everybody’ firefighters, asks councillor

Cornwall Coun. Mark MacDonald, seen here in a December 2014 council meeting, has suggested the fire department should be concentrating on basic needs before taking on other duties. (Newswatch Group/Bill Kingston, File)

CORNWALL – City councillor Mark MacDonald believes the Cornwall Fire Department should be focusing on its basic “needs” before picking up other duties.

MacDonald, a member of the Fire Master Plan Implementation Committee, was reacting to word city firefighters will be giving opioid overdose medication as part of their work as first responders.

“The Fire Master Plan dictates very clearly what our needs are and right now we are not meeting our basic firefighting needs. So why would we be doing other things other than at least meeting the very minimum requirement when it comes to safety to life?” MacDonald said in an interview with Cornwall Newswatch.

MacDonald made it clear he doesn’t have an issue with firefighters carrying and giving the drug.

“We need to look at our very basic needs first to make sure we are at least providing them before we maybe start providing services that we don’t need to be providing.”

MacDonald alleges the “number of firefighters responding to moderate and high risk calls…we’re not meeting that very basic need. That’s the number of people showing up at your house to what’s considered a working fire.”

The Fire Master Plan emergency response protocols call for 14 firefighters for moderate risk fires and 24 firefighters for high risk cases.

“He’s not wrong,” Fire Chief Pierre Voisine told Newswatch. “There’s a number of moderate and high-risk buildings in our jurisdiction and to meet the response capabilities we would need to be running with 14 and 24 firefighters.”

The chief noted the requirements are not governed by law but are standards they try to follow from the Fire Master Plan.

“Is that feasible in terms of the cost? Do we keep 24 firefighters on staff in case we get a call to those types of occupancies? That’s a council decision and I’m happy to see that the councillor seems to want to increase staffing,” the chief said.

As far as the opioid overdose kits, Voisine said it will not cost the city any more in terms of staff. “We will continue to go to medical calls…all we’re doing is protecting our people and the people we serve if we come about an opioid call.”

The only cost for the firefighting service is the actual antidote – $99. All the training was provided by the Eastern Ontario Health Unit.

Coun. MacDonald also questioned whether the service needs a Medical Response Team Leader. The chief said, what the councillor doesn’t understand is, everyone is employed as a firefighter but has a specialized skill set or file, such as Haz-Mat or Medical Response, when they’re not fighting fires. “We’re a fire department that offers various different services. In terms of making sure we offer a good bang to the buck, we shouldn’t have idle firefighters.”

Not only does Coun. MacDonald take issue with what firefighters are doing, he also has a problem with the cost. He cites a study showing the cost per $1,000 of Cornwall property assessment is 77.7 per cent high than comparable municipalities.

“The police and fire budgets now are taking over or near 50 per cent of our overall budget when they used to be around 20. Is that not an issue?” MacDonald questioned.

“Doesn’t that shine a light on issue and why are we performing things that we shouldn’t be? Firefighters can’t be everything for everybody. The number one thing they should be focusing on is fire protection, fire prevention,” MacDonald told CNW.

“We have to start asking ourselves, can we afford to have our firefighters trying to be everything to everybody or should they be focusing our basic fire protection needs. That’s the question,” the councillor said.

The fire chief believes the assessment study is somewhat misleading and, in fact, makes the case to grow the population – not cut the fire service. “An increase in population doesn’t really affect the volume of calls that much. That’s an example of a real benefit. That 77 per cent takes a real dive and there’s no change in service. I don’t know if that number makes any real difference.”

MacDonald said the solution for the fire department is simple – implement the $50,000 Fire Master Plan in its entirety. “In the terms of the medical terms for the firefighters, it’s not going to be an easy pill for them to swallow.”

In the days of budget cutbacks and closures in other agencies, MacDonald said the Fire Master Plan is going to “bring them into the real world.”

As far as the committee, MacDonald dismisses the notion it’s a form of micro-managing, saying city council has been looking for some time to “take control of the firefighting budget. The Fire Master Plan allows us to do that. That is not micro-managing. That is doing what we’re being paid to do.”

Fire Chief Voisine said he’s somewhat confused that MacDonald is concerned about the cost of the firefighting service but wants to increase staffing.