Fire Chief Nick Ruller has been given the okay to take the next step toward a $1.5 million extension to the Old Town fire station.
Councillors have agreed to spend $90,000 for a consultant to design the addition, which will include offices for current full-time fire department staff who now work out of the operations centre in Virgil.
Ruller made a case for having six staff members, who are already available to respond to emergency calls, located in the Old Town, which is suffering from a decreasing number of volunteers. Having staff close by and ready to attend a fire will reduce their response time, especially given the increasing traffic to the Queen Street area, he said.
His request was to help support the delivery of the volunteer model, aiding the recruiting and retention of volunteer firefighters, while managing growth in the town and leveraging existing staff, he said.
Although he ended up with unanimous support, it didn’t come easily.
When reminded about continuing requests that involve large expenses for the fire department, including two new trucks and new equipment, and questioned whether there were other alternatives to consider, he was asked by Coun. Erwin Wiens, “If we don’t give you the $1.5 million, are there other things you can do?”
Ruller said he has considered alternatives, such as Glendale and Virgil, but the Old Town is the area where it’s difficult to get volunteers, and is also the area with the greatest risk, due to its density, heritage buildings and the transient population from tourism.
“I completely appreciate I’m before you once again looking for another initiative, but as you are aware it’s my responsibility to bring these things forward to you. It’s not Nick Ruller asking, it is very much your fire chief looking at it from the perspective of the community, and what I genially believe is in their best interest. I don’t take for granted at all the support I’ve had from this council for the fire department.”
Coun. Clare Cameron said she was “unquestioning” in her support. The current request is not new, “has been in multiple aligned plans and has a connection to strategy at the town.” She supported the initiative without hesitation, she said, for the safety of the community, with NOTL firefighters the town’s only first responders, attending not only to fires but other emergency calls, including vehicle collisions, medical calls and general assistance, most in the Old Town area.
“We’ve gone through 18 months and more of asking people to make incredible sacrifices in the name of safety. Why would we not go forward unquestioning with an important investment in an opportunity to help support one of the operational bulwarks of safety in our community, which is through our fire department?”
Cameron added her thanks to Ruller, “for continuing to try to articulate how this issue of safety is connected with issues of affordability and economic opportunity in our town. People need to see how these big pieces fit together.”
Ruller told The Local he is trying to act in the residents’ best interest, and responding to the town’s strategic plan, positioning the fire department for the future.
“We put a ton of effort into ensuring every report is comprehensive, making a complete case, backed with strong data to support our position,” he said. This is the third time this particular issue has come forward in third-party reports, and “these recommendations have been highlighted again and again.”
The agreement to move forward with the hiring of a consultant was important in getting the project shovel-ready, for the purpose of taking advantage of some of the grant opportunities he’s seeing, he added.
Although the firefighting organization has responded to growing pressure throughout NOTL, the Old Town is experiencing unique challenges — from 25 volunteers and 160 responses to calls in 1996, when the majority of volunteers lived in the Old Town and worked in NOTL, there are now 14 volunteer firefighters assigned to the Old Town station, only eight of whom live in the station’s catchment area, which is on pace to respond to 320 calls in 2021.
With the erosion of staff, Ruller said, his proposal presents a real opportunity to reduce response time by supplementing volunteers with daytime staff currently working out of operations building in Virgil — staff who are considered operational when needed.
He suggested that as well as the 3,280 square-foot addition, the fire station should be given a public entrance, which they’re missing now, and an extended driveway to Niagara Stone Road, allowing for emergency exits while avoiding the intersection with Anderson Lane.
The addition would also include an accessible washroom, and two gender neutral showers – currently, he said, the station has one men’s washroom with a shower.
To continue the town’s existing volunteer delivery model, “we are going to have to look at creative solutions,” he told councillors.
His proposal will have nominal impact on operating costs, other than utilities for the extra space, but the extension would incur capital costs of about $1.5 million, which could be “100 per cent financed by development charge reserves,” and would have no direct impact on taxpayers.
Proceeding with a design now with the aid of a consultant, for a build that could be a couple of years away, would allow the project to be shovel-ready so the town could “potentially access infrastructure grants that we’re seeing come forward.”
And although it’s an expensive fix, “we have to consider the consequences if we do not take action to better support the volunteer service delivery model,” he said.
In 2020, the current model of volunteer firefighters cost the town $470,000. To have four career firefighters available for daytime only, would cost $1,200,000, he pointed out.
His proposal highlights the benefit of leveraging the six full-time firefighting staff, who are all also front-line firefighters who have come through the ranks as volunteers, and are already part of the operational staff when they’re working at their administrative duties.
If they’re needed, “they can hop on a truck, and if they’re not, they can just walk back to their desk.”
He pointed out other Niagara municipalities with volunteer fire departments are all using a fire station for administration offices, “to better leverage staff for operational purposes as well.”
The move would also improve the lives of the volunteers, he added. As a former volunteer firefighter, he said, “you don’t want to let your team down when a call comes in, but firefighters often have young kids at home in their care. Better supporting this station is a great opportunity to support volunteer firefighters, and build that roster up from some of the decreases we’ve seen over the years.”
When volunteers are running out to their fourth call of the day at dinner time, the first one having come in when they were getting their kids off to school, he said, “it can be very demanding for our firefighters.” The move to the Old Town “is about helping them strike a balance.”
Lord Mayor Betty Disero asked Ruller where the proposal to amalgamate the Queenston and Virgil stations lies in priority relative to the Old Town station.
Ruller explained that while the consolidation has been supported in principal, it won’t be considered until one of the stations is reaching the end of its life, and action has to be taken. That isn’t expected to occur in the next 10 years, and when it does, the demand for services in those two areas will be reevaluated.
Consolidation, he said, “didn’t present any improved level of service for the public until 2030 or beyond.”