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Banff, Canmore preparing for worst-case firefighter staffing shortages due to COVID-19

The municipalities of Banff and Canmore have been in conversations on the potential for support of each other for emergency fire response and other essential services, if required, due to staffing issues associated with COVID-19.
Banff Fire Department
Banff Fire Department

BANFF – Bow Valley municipalities are preparing for worst-case scenarios should staffing levels at local fire departments and other emergency services take a hit in the face of record-breaking COVID-19 numbers with the highly contagious Omicron variant.

The municipalities of both Banff and Canmore are part of Alberta’s south central emergency management agreements that allows for mutual aid in fire response services, which can be called upon if needed.

In addition to fire emergency response, administrators in both Banff and Canmore have been in conversations on the potential for support of each other for other essential services, if required due to staffing issues.

“Neither have an immediate need, but we opened the conversation as part of prudent contingency planning,” said Jason Darrah, the Town of Banff’s director of communications.

Currently, the Town of Banff has two out of 34 firefighters in isolation due to a positive test. Overall, the Town has about 28 active COVID-19 cases, representing about 10 per cent of its workforce.

Neighbouring Town of Canmore had 27 out of a total of 307 employees, about nine per cent of its workforce, not working due to COVID-19 as of Jan. 11.

Canmore officials say Canmore-Fire Rescue, which has 44 firefighters, is currently not impacted, although the rapidly spreading Omicron variant makes for a constantly evolving situation.

“They currently don’t have anyone away as a result of symptoms or positive testing,” said Therese Rogers, general manager of corporate services for the Town of Canmore.

“Our highest risk area is the fire department because it’s difficult to backfill and provide additional support there, obviously for training and the experience and so on that they have.”

Rogers said acting fire chief Keri Martens is in regular communication with neighbouring municipalities, which include Banff and Exshaw.

“They also have put in place some plans for providing support to one another should any one of the municipalities be down a said number of firefighters that would impact response,” she said.

With limited rapid tests available, the Town of Canmore has limited those tests to emergency services personnel for now, with plans to expand to other frontline workers once more become available.

“We have limited our internal testing program to essential service areas and we have provided a supply of rapid tests to the fire department who are able to self administer those tests,” said Rogers.

“More tests have been ordered, but there is a shortage not just for Canmore, but for really the province and the country, so we don’t expect delivery of additional tests for another couple of weeks.”

In terms of recreation services, contingencies include the potential reduction of some registered programming or looking at reduced operating hours to be able to manage the number of staff. Elevation Place was closed for two days in this current wave.

In some cases, employees with licences for certain vehicle or equipment operations have been able to switch between departments to cover any staff shortages, for example, staff in the areas of solid waste or parks.

“We’ve been doing similar things across the board,” said Rogers, noting staff are working from home where possible.

“We don’t currently have any concerns or challenges around service delivery, and I feel confident we have good plans in place and those are being regularly reviewed based on the changing situation.”

In both 2020 and 2021, council approved draws from the tax stabilization reserve to fund unanticipated COVID-related expenses and lost revenues associated with facility closures.

Last year, the Town of Canmore had budgeted $900,000 for COVID-19 contingency, but a preliminary look at the year-end financials indicate that just under $600,000 has been spent.

“We’re proposing that we will draw only $600,000 from the tax stabilization reserve, not the initial $900,000,” said Rogers.

Of note, the province of Alberta kicked in approximately $4 million to the Town of Canmore in 2020-21 through the Municipal Operating Support Transfer, the so-called MOST grant, to help cover lost revenue and unanticipated and increased operating costs incurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That funding did allow us to replenish the tax stabilization reserve in 2020, both for the expenses we incurred, lost revenue, and also to help fund our social and business support programs that we operated for affected members of our community,” said Rogers.

Based on low COVID-19 numbers province-wide and predictions into the longer-term at the time of budget deliberations, Town of Canmore administration did not propose a contingency fund for 2022.

However, with the current wave of the pandemic, the municipality is beginning to incur some unanticipated expenses such as rapid tests and N95 masks and may be forced to ask council for contingency funding from the tax stabilization reserve in the coming weeks if the situation worsens.

“We have had one two-day closure at Elevation Place so we have so far been able to really limit lost revenue as a result of facility closures,” said Rogers.

The Town of Canmore did investigate resourcing additional vaccines for the community managed through an independent private sector company, but ended up deciding against that for various reasons.

Specifically, Rogers said these vaccine programs in the past were funded by the province, however that funding ended on Dec. 31, 2021, and nothing new has been approved as of yet for 2022.

“The service we were exploring, it’s been called a vaccine bus but was actually a Sprinter van,” she said. “The amount of vaccines that could be administered was actually quite low and would have cost a minimum of $2,000 per day.”

The Town of Canmore ended up taking the approach that vaccination is a public health responsibility, not a municipal one.

“We have also been in communication with Alberta Health Services who assured us that additional vaccine inventory is coming, and more appointments for first, second shots, and also booster shots is imminent,” said Rogers.

The Town of Banff hosted and paid for two walk-in vaccination clinics at Banff Town Hall on Jan. 9 and 10.

About 20 people per hour could receive a shot, with the clinic hitting capacity for people who lined up on Sunday. Due to high volume on Sunday, the nurses extended the COVID-19 vaccination clinic hours on Monday.