By Trevor Busch
Three potential scenarios for relocating the town’s fire hall to meet a 10-minute response time have been presented to town council.
Improving the response times of the town’s volunteer fire service, which could have a corresponding effect on the development community with regard to decreased input costs, has been a bone of contention for developers with properties currently outside the radius of a 10-minute response time.
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.
According to administration, during a contractor’s meeting on Sept. 27, 2016 a discussion was had about the HIRF (high-intensity residential fire) requirements within the town. The delegation of home builders later attended council on Nov. 14, 2016 to provide information on the industry from a local perspective, “with the hopes of creating a policy favourable to their interests.”
At that same meeting, council struck a HIRF Committee to evaluate the issue, which included Coun.(s) Rick Popadynetz, Andrew Prokop and Laura Ross-Giroux, and three contractors, Edwyn Ellingson of Willowcrest Construction, Travis Bareman of Bareman Construction and Willi Thiessen of Terramesa Inc. Other members of the committee include CAO Cory Armfelt, fire chief Steve Munshaw and former finance director Devon Wannop.
The HIRF Committee met three times to compile information from previous studies and present research into a HIRF report that outlines the case for relocating the Fire Department and how to alleviate costs.
“Ultimately, the recommendation coming out of the committee was to move the fire hall, both for the advantage of removing the issue of HIRF from the municipality, but also for a greater contribution to safety if the fire hall were moved closer to the residential areas,” said Armfelt, speaking at town council’s April 24 regular meeting.
According to administration, “Service level will improve if the Fire Department is moved inside a 10-minute response time,” and that, “Results of data analyzed shows that moving the Fire Department will be economically beneficial for the town’s growth.”
“We certainly have issues with regard to our recreation equipment being stored in various places in the municipality, some outside, some inside, and varying levels of security around that equipment, and we really think there would be an advantage to locating the Parks and Recreation Department directly adjacent to the Public Works Department, and allow some synergies to develop there,” continued Armfelt.
The report compiled by the HIRF committee presented three different scenarios for relocating the fire hall, should it be approved by town council.
Alternative 1 suggested council approve the Taber Fire Department being relocated to, “Within 500 m2 of the 50th Street and 50th Avenue intersection,” and that council approves building an eco-friendly or LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified fire department fully funded by the Energy Conservation Capital Reserve.
There was no indication in this option regarding a specific location, or if it might potentially involve the expropriation of privately-owned property or a reduction in the size of Confederation Park, considering the tight geographical guidelines put forward.
Alternative 2 suggested council approve building an eco-friendly or LEED certified Fire Department to be 50 per cent funded by the Energy Conservation Capital Reserve, 35 per cent funded by builders and developers using a special offsite levy fee, with the remaining 15 per cent to be funded by town rate payers using an increase in property taxes of 0.3 per cent, or $3 per $100,000 of assessed property value for residential, and $3.61 per every $100,000 of non-residential property.
Alternative 3 suggested council approve relocating the Fire Department, to be 70 per cent funded by builders and developers in town through a special offsite levy fee, with the remaining 30 per cent to be funded by town rate payers using an increase in property taxes of 0.6 per cent, or $6 per $100,000 of assessed property value for residential, and $7.22 per every $100,000 of non-residential property.
In Alternative 2, at an estimated 35 single and multi-family dwelling development permits per year, the offsite levy fee would be $1,725. In Alternative 3, the offsite levy fee would be $3,450.
Alternative 4 suggested the town drop the idea altogether, while Alternative 5 suggested declining a fire hall relocation in favour of the Town of Taber entering into the residential land development industry to help regulate and create competitive lot prices in Taber.
In the report, it was noted an estimated 60 per cent of the community is located outside of a 10 minute response time due to the current location of the fire hall being roughly five minutes from any residential areas. It was also reported that the existing fire hall was not originally designed to house a fire department, and has a number of shortcomings, including inadequate work out facilities, water filling capacities, kitchen, parking stalls, locker space, and an inadequate emergency response headquarters.
“What surprised me — we always talk about the 10-minute response time — Chief Munshaw actually drew a map of what the 10-minute response time was in the residential areas of Taber, and it was minuscule, I’d say about five per cent of the town only,” said Ross-Giroux, who sat on the HIRF Committee. “So we’re not even meeting our own safety requirements for the great majority of the town. So by moving the fire department to a more central locale, we can then encompass the entire town within a 10-minute response time, and that to me was a real turning point.”
Coun. Randy Sparks was quick to point out the town doesn’t set the requirements under HIRF.
“We must remember that the town doesn’t set that 10-minute response time. And so it has nothing to do with the town. I just wanted to thank the committee members and all those that were involved with this, because it has opened my mind a little bit to other things, because some of the comments that I’ve received before when we discussed this, I was led to believe that where the fire hall was now was definitely fine.”
In December 2009, Morrison Hershfield Limited conducted an Emergency Services Master Plan, which identified the Town of Taber’s fire department response times, concluding that the department was only able to meet the required response time 10 per cent of the time.
In a new analysis compiled by FireWise Consulting and presented to town council in 2016, according to historical data over the previous three years reviewed in the report, Taber’s fire service was able to respond to fires in the town in less than 10 minutes 67 per cent of the time, however it was still more than 20 per cent below the 90 per cent threshold established by the province.
The FireWise report concluded that while a more centrally-located fire station (closer to Taber’s downtown area) could meet the 10 minute response time threshold, analysis suggested this option would be prohibitively expensive for only a marginally improved benefit. To replace the current fire station with all the amenities of the current hall, the report estimated a cost in the range of $5-$6 million, and would also present potential traffic and noise issues in the area.
Glen Sanders of FireWise Consulting, who delivered the new report at town council’s Feb. 22, 2016 meeting, suggested at the time that relocating the town’s fire hall would be able to improve response times in certain areas, but questioned whether the cost involved would be in the best interest of Taber taxpayers.
“The answer is, yes it would, but is the cost worth the benefit?” questioned Sanders on Feb. 22, 2016. “It would improve the timing, but just barely.”
Similar arguments by Sanders were aligned against the construction of a satellite fire station, such as expense, size and scope, and cost versus benefit.
In the HIRF Committee’s report, it was stated that through review of information compiled by fire chief Steve Munshaw, the total cost of relocating and constructing a new fire hall is now estimated to not exceed $2.5 million, although there was no information included regarding how this figure was reached by administration or the committee.
Regarding possible funding scenarios for various alternatives presented, according to the report, the Town of Taber currently has $395,000 in the Energy Conservation Capital Reserve that has been accumulating for three years, and this money is, “to update town facilities to be more eco-friendly.” The report suggested that if a new fire hall was built as an energy-efficient building the town could allocate the funds annually contributed to the reserve over the next 20 years to cover the entire $2.5 million estimated cost. It was unclear under this scenario if other energy conservation projects would have to be put on hold if the town selected this funding arrangement.
Funded exclusively through the town’s franchise fee revenues, the energy conservation reserve was established in 2013, where 7.5 per cent of franchise fee revenue is directed into a fund to support energy conservation projects. Taber is one of a handful of Alberta communities currently charging the maximum-allowable rate of 20 per cent as a franchise fee. Across the province, franchise fees have increasingly been criticized as a “hidden tax” by utility consumers, a “tax” which raises revenue for municipalities through charges to a resident’s utility bills and not through their property taxes.
The Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) has established maximum percentages for franchise fees at 20 per cent, and historically the town has maintained its percentage rates at that maximum.
In its conclusions and recommendations, the HIRF Committee suggested Alternative 1 was the most favourable in terms of mitigating HIRF requirements and meeting the intent of, “prosperity and growth for the Town of Taber as well as the safety of residents.”
“With this town, we want to continue to make it grow, and to make it possible we’ve really got to look at different options such as this,” said Coun. Jack Brewin.
At their April 24 regular meeting, town council voted unanimously (5-0) to accept the report from the HIRF Committee and directed administration to examine the benefit of relocating the Parks Department within the current fire hall, and evaluate the asset management and efficient land-use/growth perspectives related to a possible fire hall relocation. Coun. Rick Popadynetz was absent, while former Mayor Henk DeVlieger resigned his position at the outset of the meeting.