Vancouver firefighters are asking taxpayers to update their equipment room (product not as illustrated)
I had the opportunity to get away this weekend to a nice secluded cabin in the BC interior that not only lacked electricity, but cel phone and internet coverage. The weather was spectacular, but my internet withdrawal was a little hard to take. When I finally did reach civilization and download the latest reports from Vancouver City Council I couldn't believe my eyes. In the midst of the worst economic times the City has faced in decades (see Mayor Meggs' monthly reports on falling revenue), the firefighters union is asking taxpayers to spend over $400,000 on new fitness equipment for the boys - cost shared 50/50.
Don't get me wrong, in the unlikely event that my house or office catches fire, I want to ensure that the firefighters heading my way are physically fit. However, I just cannot fathom how Council will justify spending that kind of money when budgets for other city departments (excluding police) have either been frozen or cut back.
Yet we all know the Firefighter's Union remains one of the biggest supporters of this current Vision Council. So when a report comes to council from them, you need to take it seriously. I should note the report is yet another "late distribution." This is normally something management or the politicians do when they don't want a particular report to get much public attention or scrutiny. Late distribution reports have become the new norm under Mayor Robertson's new No Consultation Council™.
The union is asking for 44 new treadmills and elliptical trainers at a cost of $324,000. In addition, the report states that it costs $90,000 per year to run a fitness training and equipment program. The City Manager recommends the expenditure. Is there no way they could have simply done another calendar with scantily clad firefighters to raise the dough needed to buy new fitness equipment?
This will be a very tough request to turn down from the Firefighter's Union Local 18. They've been waiting a long time for Vision to come to power (even providing volunteers on their campaign), and now their first financial request is up for review. I suspect that despite tough economic ties, the Mayor and his colleagues will give the equipment purchase and fitness program a thumbs up.
I, on the other hand, think that not only is the timing of this report off, I think the purchase of this fancy fitness equipment demonstrates they are out of touch. I know that former Chief Ray Holdgate would likely have never put this type of report to council for consideration. That's why the unions were not upset to see him "retire."
Being physically fit is something that every firefighter knows goes with the territory. That's why BEFORE they take the job, they realize they must get in shape in order to pass all the tests required to make the grade.
With the advent of our modern building code which requires sprinkler installation, the amount of actual fire fighting being done by our firefighters has been on the steep decline over the last several decades.
They now must sit idle for hours on end deciding what to do with their time as they wait for the next call. That's just the nature of the business. Therefore, it makes sense the union thinks working out on company time is a good thing. This report goes one step further...why not have taxpayers pay for the equipment as well?
Unlike the Vancouver Police Department which has been scrutinized to death for efficiencies, the firefighters have been left untouched. They have not had analysts pouring through HR records to see if there are efficiencies to be found. Over the recent years that has been the sole domain of the police. However, I'm told that a review is now underway and the results should be available to the public sometime later this year.
Perhaps the role of our firefighter needs to change now that they spend so little time actually fighting fires. Are there other jobs they could be doing during the down periods to help keep the city safe? I can't help but think there are many. One proposal I heard was to use them as the eyes and ears on the street during big public events like a fireworks show or Canada Day celebrations. This could help to lower the costs to community groups who are often left with a big "security" bill from the city.
Why couldn't the fire trucks and firefighters be out there on display to keep the peace during big public events? Their presence would hardly be missed by the crowds and it would be a great use of their talents. It would also help to make people feel more safe. But firefighters doing "non" fire fighting work would be something the union would fight tooth and nail.
As a cost cutting measure, some cities have not only hired a core group of men and women to act as their permanent fire fighting team, but they also have a number of "reservists" or auxiliaries who are available on-call. The military has successfully deployed this method over the years as a means of keeping their permanent staffing complement low, but their access to resources high. It's something the unions in Vancouver have vehemently resisted over the years.
A number of Metro Vancouver cities already use on-call fire fighters. In Surrey over 20% of their firefighters are auxiliary. Here is an excerpt from the City of Surrey's website:
Currently, we employ over 342 career firefighters and 92 paid-on-call firefighters.
In Coquitlam, they also use auxiliary fire fighters as a way of keeping costs down. According to their website:
Our Fire and Rescue Services Department includes a group of auxiliary firefighters whose duties are to supplement the services offered by the full time career firefighters.
Cities really need to think out-of-the-box when it comes to their vast firefighting resources. A review of those resources to see how they could be better used in a modern city is a good first step. It may not be popular to say, but a second step is saying no to this late distribution report and having the firefighters workout on their own time like the majority of taxpayers who fund them.
Alternatively, the union could fund the equipment and program costs, while the City allows the firefighters to work out on the job. Now that's a 50/50 cost share program that makes sense.