While Canmore council approved a strategic plan last week for its fire department, once it divests itself of providing ambulance services, politicians remain concerned the municipality will be picking up the province’s slack.
Council voted to approve a stand-alone fire-rescue department strategic plan last week, setting the number of in-station firefighters at two.
But the increasing demand for the fire department to respond to medical assist calls when no ambulance is within the community was a source for concern for councilors and Mayor Ron Casey.
“I firmly believe in rural areas like ours, the ambulance service we have enjoyed will not be continued by Alberta Health Services,” said the mayor. “I am worried that we are slowly but surely duplicating a medical service in our fire department.”
Fire Chief Todd Sikorsky said the province is in the process of establishing minimum medical training for firefighters in Alberta to respond to medical assistance calls.
Casey said if the province knows the fire department will automatically respond it will take advantage of that because it is free.
He said he does not know how to fix what he sees as an emerging problem, but added it is absolutely critical that it continue to be monitored.
Asked what obligation Canmore has to provide medical assist response, Sikorsky said there is no requirement to provide that service and it is a council decision as to what service level the department provides.
However, he added, when the department responds to medical assistance calls it does not receive financial remuneration from Alberta Health Services.
Casey took issue with the fact there is no opportunity to collect for offering this service. He added once ambulances had been divested as a municipal responsibility, response times have increased dramatically, along with medical assist calls.
The mayor warned the risk of the change in service delivery from municipalities to the province is a downloading of that responsibility back onto municipal fire departments – for free.
Sikorsky said it is a question for council to consider of whether the Town provides that service to its citizens.
“I think we have a citizen expectation that if an ambulance is not available, someone will show up on their doorstep,” he said. “There is a public expectation if an ambulance is not available, a fire truck will come.”
Alberta Health Services took over governance and funding of ambulance services in the province in 2009.
Canmore has operated an integrated Fire-EMS department since 1991, but with the changeover it was apparent AHS’s mandate was to integrate EMS within health services.
AHS dispatches ambulances based on which one is the closest, regardless of jurisdiction. Canmore operates two advanced life support ambulances 24 hours a day, year-round.
As a result of the changes, both ambulance crews have seen increased volumes, which affects the availability of those crews for fire/rescue response.
“It was really apparent when we started down this road our days as an integrated service were numbered,” Sikorsky said.
A statistical analysis of calls to the fire department from 2007 to this year shows the most common response is for medical assistance, which represents 35 per cent of calls.
The second most common call is for alarms (31 per cent) followed by fires (12 per cent) and motor vehicle collisions (seven per cent).
The strategic plan also sets out a response time of 10 minutes for 90 per cent of calls as a target.
The department will continue to use both in-station crews and on-call paid response firefighters. The minimum level of staffing was set at two full-time fire fighters on duty at all times.
That means the department will need nine full-time employees and an active roster of paid response firefighters, of which there are currently 36.
The plan sets out that the department’s primary response should be local and for fire suppression, rescue response, including vehicle and machinery extrication, rope rescue, aquatic rescue, ice rescue and confined space rescue, hazardous materials response and fire response to medical assistance.
Sikorsky said the full budget impact of the change will not be realized until 2013.
Canmore signed a one-year extension to the two-year contract it had with AHS to provide the service up until March 21, 2012.
In 2012, the cost of providing the stand alone service is expected to increase by $596,000 over the 2011 budget of $878,999, for a total cost of $1.5 million.
The cost for 2012 with the transition to a stand-alone model is expected to increase the budget by $480,557, for a total of $1.4 million.
The idea of revenue generation was brought up with Sikorsky, who said Canmore could consider a full cost recovery model.
Much like what happens with an ambulance, he said, Canmore could charge a fire response fee. He noted such a move would be controversial and currently no other jurisdiction in the province is charging at full cost recovery rates.
When it comes to the possibility of charging those rates to insurance companies or surrounding jurisdictions that request assistance, Sikorsky said more investigation is needed.
“It is not something that has been done in Alberta,” he said.
Councillor Ed Russell expressed concern on behalf of taxpayers that Canmore is footing the bill for someone else.
Sikorsky said within all mutual aid agreements, Canmore sees reciprocal response from its neighbours if needed.
He added the provincial parks river rescue program, for example, saves Canmore from having to duplicate that service.
Another source of revenue, said the chief, could be found if Canmore opened up its training to outside agencies to participate in for a fee.