By Greg Price
Possibly relocating the fire hall in Taber is still on the table as council weighs the positives and negatives of its implications involving response times, costs to home builders and home buyers with affordable housing and the taxpayer.
With how the Taber Fire Department views the situation, it is simply this — the department will do their job to the best of their ability with the resources they are allotted be it at the current fire hall or a more centralized one in the future if that is what council decides.
Taber Times editor Greg Price went on a ride along with Taber Fire Department Chief Steve Munshaw in various scenarios of ‘what ifs,’ examining fire calls from where the fire hall is located at 6201 54th Avenue, compared to if a fire hall was centralized like at the current old court house in which some discussions have been made as a new location in the past to improve response times (town council declined that location as an option in late 2016).
The Alberta Building Code in 2006 addressed high intensity residential fires (HIRF), identifying a need for fire departments to respond in under 10 minutes more than 90 per cent of the time.
Due to this decision, towns with fire departments unable to achieve this threshold within their response areas would require new buildings to have sprinkler systems installed, increased setbacks or changes to windows and nonvented soffits.
“The challenges of any community is you have business, commercial and residential, and they are separated. In your downtown core, they are smaller, older, turn-of-the-century types of homes. There is a very small majority of people who live in this area compared to the west side of 50th,” said Munshaw.
Driving to the residence of a volunteer firefighter that resides in a house west of 50th and surrounded by three school zones, Munshaw set up an experiment of when that volunteer would get a call to the fire hall in its current location.
Various factors go into how fast a volunteer firefighter can respond to a call from their home be it time of day and family situation when the call comes in, time of the year (winter versus summer etc.). For argument sake, Munshaw put one minute on his timer by the time the firefighter gets into his vehicle to go to the hall.
“In Taber we are comprised of paid, no-call volunteers, with three full-time guys that are there (at the hall) Monday to Friday. But that’s not when your typical calls come in which are evenings, weekends and late at night. You get the odd call that comes in during the day time,” said Munshaw.
With the current fire hall on the most eastern side of Taber, the volunteer driving from his residence must follow all traffic rules including school zones traveling at 30 kilometres an hour and stop signs, as volunteer firefighters are not given special traffic exemptions like some other professions.
“They have what they classify as the green-light policy in Alberta. If your town adopts it as a guideline, you can put a green light on your dash and ask people to give you the right of way. But we found over time it doesn’t work. People get confused and it can cause accidents because of it,” said Munshaw.
“We want you to get there as safe as possible.”
The response time includes getting out of the volunteer’s vehicle and making their way into the fire station to dress and prep equipment/vehicles for the call.
“We give the guys one minute to get completely dressed in their bunks. That’s your pants, jacket, helmet, everything you need before you go on the fire truck. But we have to have four people (for the truck). Each person lives in different places and we came from the centre of town from a residential area, so you may have to wait for other people for a couple of minutes,” said Munshaw.
Munshaw simulates the fire truck leaving the station in the optimum time conditions and pretends the fire is back at the Taber Times office.
Lights and sirens are used at this point that gives the firefighters the right of way, using the most direct route for the Code 3 call.
Firefighters look for where to pull up to have access to hydrants.
“When you get to the location, you have to get to the hydrant, where it takes almost another two minutes to get set up to flow water,” said Munshaw, adding the call is currently at a time of 11 minutes and 42 seconds, with two minutes added on to be water flow ready. “That time is from the volunteer’s house, to the current hall, back to the downtown core. The straightest line is usually the best route.”
Fire chief Steve Munshaw then does a test scenario using the administration building as a central location for the fire hall, leaving from the same spot of where the volunteer firefighter lives in town. The mock fire is located in Westview Estates where there is high-density housing that is in question for some developers.
“When they are doing studies on fire responses, you have people living throughout your whole community, and they are working throughout your whole community. You have to look at where do they live? Where do they work? And what is the response time from the hall? You have to have time to get form their home, or work, to the hall, and then back to the fire in the residential or commercial property. That has to change,” said Munshaw. “So if you take and shrink your travel time from the home to the hall, you are reducing your whole response time. That is the point I think the developers are trying to get to with HIRF being a complication in development. Is there a method for us working within it and how do we do that? There are fire codes, but it is building codes where this applies.”
The time is hovering around a little over three minutes and 30 seconds when the volunteer goes from his house to the centralized location of the ‘new’ fire hall located on 50th Street and 50th Avenue (administration building), driving on icy roads and obeying traffic laws. Volunteer firefighters are required to live within two miles of 50th Street and 50th Avenue for minimum response standards . Two minutes are added on to dress and get the fire truck out of the hall to go to Westview.
“We are meeting the criteria for the 10-minute mark,” said Munshaw, as two more minutes are added on for the emergency vehicle to be water ready and still finishing under the 10-minute threshold as the volunteer reaches the fire at a house at Westview Estates. “That’s almost three minutes (less) attending almost the exact same call for a location.”
Munshaw drives editor Greg Price to an area of high-density housing with multiple-family dwellings to showcase the importance of response times in these areas of housing.
“Some examples of high-density housing, the eaves can actually touch (like Calgary),” said Munshaw. “You start looking around here (in Taber) and it is tighter homes, cars are parked pretty tight to the houses (for car fires). If materials (for houses) are more volatile nowadays and fires are happening faster, what is our best option? The end result we can hope for is faster response times. How you fit that in? You have two options. You can either fit in with people that are there all the time (full-time service) so they don’t have the driving, or you fit it by them getting to the hall quicker.”
Munshaw noted that response time can also be improved having more volunteers and having them better trained. If you can draw more volunteers from throughout the town in that two-mile radius, the greater the chance getting the necessary number to get the fire truck operational and out of the hall with volunteers arriving faster through volume.
“Our manpower has increased up to 33 now and we want to support those numbers better. We are trying to make everything faster by making the system more proficient. But we are getting to the point where we have cut all the fat and minimized the minutes as best as we can to this point, we can’t get any faster. Right now we are hitting that response time 67 per cent of the time. What’s the minimum we have to hit (under HIRF), 90 per cent. With new lots they are making them tighter all the time.”
Various figures have been thrown around with how much a new fire hall would cost depending on scope, and who would be responsible for that price tag. Some estimations have reached around the $5-6 million range. Munshaw noted Medicine Hat’s new fire hall.
“How much is that fire hall? It’s $7 million dollars. They have a career (paid) fire station with sleep-in quarters and many other amenities. Is that what Taber needs? No,” said Munshaw. “It’s kind of like our fire-training centre when we go tit up and running. The town had the eland, so the $300,00 for the land we would talk about, did the town have to pay for the land when they own it? No. So you take that off the price of your building. When you are talking about land in the downtown core, what is a piece of land almost an acre in size cost to buy it from the town, it is through the roof because it’s downtown property, everybody wants it. If the town has land that it can give away to itself, it’s a cost recovery that can be taken off the cost.”
Munshaw noted you can look at costs of fire halls in places like Medicine Hat or the four fire halls that have existed in Lethbridge, you have to make sure you are comparing apples with apples and oranges with oranges.
“They are all different fire halls with different price tags. We have to look at what works for Taber,” said Munshaw of the modest square footage of the volunteer department that contains apparatus bays, standard bays, office spaces, kitchen, teaching area and storage. “Our (current) fire hall works pretty well, but there are some disadvantages to it. Currently, in this fire hall we have five engines and two ambulances. So seven vehicles are trying to pull out of four doors, which can get tricky for angling. Do you have future expansion needs? What you are building today, what are you going t build in 25 years? You can be somewhere for along time, the fire station I wa sin, in Kimberly, it was 1952 when we occupied that space and (they’re) still working in that space.”
Two scenarios in a fire department are a career department and a municipality figuring out what that would cost them annually and then location and support of a volunteer department.
As Munshaw noted when it comes to the relocation of the fire hall debate, all the fire department can do is answer the scenario of response times between the current hall and a projected one downtown, where yes, the department could answer within the 10-minute threshold.
“It’s a (HIRF) policy direction. I can identify what we can do. Does it (a centralized fire hall) benefit us? Yes, there’s an undeniable component that it does benefit us. Getting to a call two or three minutes faster, can I save things faster? Yes. Can I save it from affecting a neighbour?,” said Munshaw. “What the town has asked me is make a fire department and respond to calls as quickly as possible and make them as safe as possible, and have the best training so they can do the calls that we ask of them and take the most liability off of us. From there, it is the council’s job to determine if these other directions we are talking about (a possible new fire hall), where they want to go.”
A question was posed in a study Munshaw referenced of whether a small satellite fire station could help the current hall.
“It doesn’t help, because I cannot merge all these people to two different places and merge them out from two different places cost effectively and time management effectively,” said Munshaw, adding the study referenced fire calls from all over the Taber area in eight different locations. “Would a new location to the civic centre/administration building meet the 10 minute response time, yes. But is the cost worth it and the benefit? It goes, back to policy, yes I can make it (10-minute response time, 90 per cent of the time), but is it worth it to you?. The cost benefit is up to (council). I can tell council what I can do and I can’t do (as a fire service), but I cannot make the decision for them. Is the economic growth you’ve seen in the community saying is this a need or a want with high-density residential (housing). If the community does need this, what is the cost benefit?”