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Are plans keeping up with reality?

A look at the city's 2013 Fire Master Plan and how it has progressed to date

A review of 2013 master planning documents for Oshawa Fire Services, meant to guide the organization over the next 10 years are now under a scheduled review from Oshawa Fire Chief Derrick Clark. (Photo by Joel Wittnebel)

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

Tackling a fire is a team effort.

As the truck pulls up, lights flashing, sirens howling, each person has a job amid the chaos.

There’s one fire fighter commanding, one advancing the hose, another working to connect the hydrant while a fourth operates the pump. This initial response can get things moving, but is typically identified as being able to only provide limited rescue or fire fighting. To do that, the best way is to have 14 fire fighters on scene, each of them with a different task and responsibility.

And for years, Oshawa Fire Services has worked successfully as a unit, maintaining exemplary safety records in responding to thousands of calls across the city each year, many of them putting our fire fighters into incredibly dangerous situations.

However, cracks are beginning to show.

The tipping point came earlier this year when the city lost four people, two of them children, in a deadly fire on the outskirts of Oshawa’s downtown.

Now, turmoil has erupted among the team, with the union representing Oshawa’s fire fighters calling on senior management to take a serious look in the mirror to make sure the city’s fire crews are in the best places and able to respond to emergencies appropriately.

The city has remained quiet, sharing only canned comments that, while sounding good, provide little in the way of concrete answers.

A review of such a massive operation as a city’s fire services is a significant undertaking. The last time Oshawa did so was in 2013 and it cost around $100,000. The document that came out the other end was the Oshawa Fire Master Plan, and it projected what the city could expect in terms of fire operations over the next 10 years.

The city is halfway through that planning horizon now, and while OFS says a review of the plan is currently underway as scheduled, The Oshawa Express is taking a look at what they may expect to find.

The need to update

Every fire is different.

It’s what makes the job of a fire fighter so hard, as even with hours of training, preparation and study, when you’re standing before a raging blaze, all decisions are made in the moment. For that reason, training is a constant part of the job as firefighters are always learning new skills and new ways of rescue.

However, when it comes to long term planning, it’s a different story.

Typically, master plans are made to last for lengthy periods of time, in the case of Oshawa’s Fire Master Plan, it was designed to be relevant for 10 years. The city is at the halfway point right now. Based on the cost, it’s understandable why these comprehensive efforts are not undertaken on a more consistent basis, but for a city in a constant state of flux, spurred by booming development and an ever increasing population, shouldn’t more be done to ensure that these plans are kept up to date?

Since the time of the FMP’s creation, the population has grown by approximately 9,000 people, and residential development in the north end has surged.

For Fire Chief Derrick Clark, the Fire Master Plan is designed to keep up with the changing times.

“The Oshawa Fire Master Plan is a strategic planning document which includes a community risk profile and aligns services with growth,” he states in an emailed response, noting that a review is underway to analyze the plan’s effectiveness. “Oshawa Fire Services are currently in the process of reviewing the Fire Services Master Plan. Included in the review will be the performance measures and risk assessment as recommended in the Fire Master Plan and growth projections.”

However, the Oshawa Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA) says OFS isn’t going far enough, and not only have they not implemented a number of the recommendations in the fire master plan, they are out of touch with the real risks that exist in the community.

Progress on the plan

Arguably the largest success of the Fire Master Plan was the creation and construction of Fire Hall 6 in the city’s north end. The $3.5 million building was a step forward in terms of response times as they were able to adequately service the growing northern areas.

According to the FMP, with the creation of Fire Hall 6, OFS fire fighters should be able to reach 98 per cent of high risk structures in the city within four minutes (an increase from the 48 per cent under previous conditions). Hall 6 also allowed for 72 per cent coverage within four minutes for moderate risk buildings and 33 per cent for low risk. This was considered an “excellent improvement” by the consultant.

However, as part of that plan, it meant shifting fire fighters and resources from Fire Hall 1, the city’s downtown fire hall. The shift was balanced by the fact that a surplus in fire fighters was identified in Oshawa when comparing to other municipalities, showing that Oshawa had nearly 22 per cent more fire fighters than others.

“The plan indicated that the re-deployment will not impact current or future response time depth or coverage,” Clark states.

When questioned by The Express for further clarification as to whether these response times have been affected since the redeployment was completed, Clark said he “could not comment directly” as to whether response times have been kept at target levels.

“During my review of the FMP, we will be looking at our response times as a whole and specifically an analysis of the last five years,” Clark states. “Once we have completed our review and collection of data, I will be better situated to answer that question.”

Union officials aren’t so certain.

As previously reported by The Oshawa Express, union officials have been pointing out potential issues with the downtown and the number of resources to fire officials for quite some time. This isn’t to say that downtown response times are lagging, fire fighters were on scene within minutes at the deadly Centre Street fire, but it doesn’t mean that more resources aren’t required in the city centre, especially as forecasts show calls increasing over time.

“Typically, when there are high numbers of vulnerable citizens and older buildings constructed before current fire codes developed, there is an increased demand on emergency services. Given these factors for housing and population, it is likely OFS has a steady call volume particularly in and around the area of the fatal fire,” a report from the OPFFA reads. “This call volume will likely continue to grow if the pace of Oshawa’s population growth continues near the 6.6 per cent rate it has since 2011.”

It’s that reason, Peter Dyson, the president of the OPFFA, says the organization is working to complete the detailed assessment of the city, despite the lack of cooperation from senior fire officials and city hall.

“Modifications or updates need to be made and we feel that the current management of the fire service is not doing that,” Dyson says, adding that the union has no “preconceived notions” about what the report will say, and is not guiding the findings in any way.

“We’re going to let the data and the science speak for itself. We have not asked for anything to come out of this,” he says.

However, what’s worth noting is the fact that Oshawa Fire Services should already be aware of the threats and potential dangers that exist in the city’s downtown as the FMP makes repeated notes about the circumstances in the city’s core.

“Buildings within the downtown core represent the highest fire loss risk due to age and construction,” the document reads at one point.

“The inherent multi-use traditional downtown buildings include commercial on the ground floor with residential above. Combined, these result in both life safety and fire risks that need to be considered in terms of regular inspections cycles and sustaining compliance with the Ontario Fire Code,” it states in another.

On that note, the FMP recommended that in order to improve the amount of inspections being undertaken, the city should hire an additional inspector. According to FMP, this was recommended to be done to coincide with the opening of Fire Hall 6 in 2016. It wasn’t.

“As per the recommendation in the Fire Services Master Plan, it is currently under review,” Clark says.

Currently, OFS employs seven inspectors responsible for a variety of inspection responsibilities, including residential units, apartments, industrial buildings, schools, and two-unit houses.

The home at 116 Centre Street was described as a two-unit house, and while Chief Clark had previously noted that records existed on the building at city hall, it wasn’t listed on the city’s Two-Unit Housing Registration, which includes over 1,200 houses across Oshawa. Because it wasn’t registered in the system, it wasn’t required to be inspected. Following the deaths, it was found the home had no working smoke alarms.

According to statistics from OFS, 4,965 inspections were conducted in 2016. A breakdown of those statistics was not provided by OFS and no numbers are yet available for 2017.

Also recommended as part of the plan for inspectors was to install laptops into inspection vehicles in order to provide a connection between an inspectors findings and the fire fighters, should they ever respond to a call in that location.

“(It) would be highly beneficial and would help to improve the information flow between the fire prevention and suppression divisions,” the report reads.

However, this hasn’t been implemented either. Clark says this is also under review.

“We are investigating tablet technology,” he states. “A review is underway to determine the effectiveness of installing computers or laptops or tablet technology in the vehicles of fire prevention staff.”

Risk Analysis

Following the Centre Street fire on Jan. 8, the OPFFA released a report that highlighted just how vulnerable downtown residents were to fires. Based on income, demographics and the age of the structures in the city’s core, it presents a “formidable risk” the union’s report states.

“The GIS analysis found that downtown Oshawa has a disproportionately high number of residents who have an increased likelihood of being fire casualties than other parts of the city,” the document reads.

For that reason, the union is calling on senior fire officials and the City of Oshawa to work with them to create a thorough risk assessment of the city.

“The assessment should include analysis of the demographic and socioeconomic composition of Oshawa, as well as analysis of the daytime population within Oshawa, as this goes beyond the scope of Statistics Canada data,” the report reads. “The assessments should also include an analysis of the trends in historic demand, other risk indicators and hazards present in the community. The assessment of hazards should include an inventory of all high-risk and high-hazard structures, medium hazard structures and low hazard structures and their locations as it related to areas of heavy demand volume.”

However, according to the FMP, this sort of analysis should be done a lot more often than every five years, as included in the recommendations is the suggestion that the community risk profile be updated on an annual basis “as a strategy to identify changes in community risk, evolving trends within the community and to monitor the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the fire protection services provided.”

The FMP also suggests that prior to the midpoint of the FMP, “further analysis of the future growth projections and considerations of a 7th Fire Station to service the north east area of the municipality be completed and that suitable land for this station be acquired thereafter.”

And while the review is ongoing and not yet complete, Clark says potential locations have been identified for a Fire Hall 7.

Moving forward, the path is unclear.

The city continues to keep its doors closed and fire officials have offered limited comment, aside from answering questions with what appears to be copied and pasted responses from a later published press release.

The union continues to have issues obtaining information related to call data to be used in their analysis and continue to forge through the FOI process. Even then, it’s unclear what will happen even if the report is completed.

“What’s concerning to us is we’ve already been told that the city has no plans to read or look at what we are producing,” Dyson says. “I would say based on what I’ve heard in the media so far, I don’t think they read what we produced the first time.”

With that said, Mayor John Henry says he’s hopeful the union and OFS will be able to work out their differences.

“Hopefully they’ll all work things out in the end,” he says, noting that council won’t get involved further until things enter the appropriate process.

“Here at the city, fire reports to a chief, who reports to a commissioner who reports to the city manager, and it all comes through the council process,” Henry says. “Council doesn’t interfere in that order of business until it comes to committee or council.”