In 2023, Airdrie's Fire Department responded to 2,516 calls for service (January 1, 2023 - December 21, 2023). Now, the city's fire department is casting an eye toward the future of its service and what an exponentially growing city populace may mean for its firefighters.

Airdrie Fire Chief, Mike Pirie, said that if there is a theme to be had for 2024, it will be challenging norms. 

"We need to challenge everything that we do, and ask ourselves: 'is what we are doing is what we need to be doing? Is there a different way to do that work so that we can increase capacity and be more available to the public?"

Key statistics from 2023

There was an approximate increase of two to three per cent increase in call volume for the fire department when compared to 2022. However, when comparing 2021 to 2022, there was a dramatic call volume increase of 20 per cent, which the fire department noted was unsustainable. 

adaA break-down of the volume of calls that Airdrie's Fire Department responded to illustrates what type of calls the city's firefighters are most often involved in. (Graphic credit to Airdrie Fire Department) 

While nearly 50 per cent of calls for service were co-response for medical calls, those calls were stabilized.

"We have gone out half the number of times outside of our normal parameters, so something has improved," Chief Pirie said.

However, he also noted that the full scope of the medical co-response calls won't be known till later this month.

In comparison to 2022 which proved to be a record-breaking year for structure fires, there was a reduction in these types of calls in 2023; however, there is an increase in commercial fires both within the city and outside Airdrie.

Elevator rescues have doubled, though the fire department noted that this is being addressed through training.

"It makes sense, as have a lot more elevators; we have a lot more apartment buildings and commercial buildings. But for us, when we start to see those incidents start to increase, it means we need to look at our training programs."

Other marked increases also included alarms, though this too will be addressed this year, as alarm calls as very resource-intensive.

Fire Chief Pirie added that the fire department aims to conduct a review shortly of all the call types that the fire department responds to. 

"...To determine if we need to start to make shifts in how we do it. When it comes to resource-intensive, commercial and multifamily buildings, such as apartments - which essentially take all of our resources, our department is only staffed to deal with a house fire," Chief Pirie stated.

Overlap calls and how they impact resources

According to Chief Pirie, approximately 27 per cent of calls for service in 2023 were known as 'overlap calls'. He explained that this means that in 2023 there were instances in which the fire department had four simultaneous calls, with another three calls in a queue, although he added that there will be a much more holistic picture of the call overlap later this month. 

In a hypothetical example, he illustrated what this means. If there were to be a residential fire, the fire department would respond with two fire engines and a ladder, this is the sum of the city's three stations responding. Through their mutual aid agreement, Airdrie would also pull in an aid engine from either Crossfield or Rocky View County.

"During that time that we are there for that fire, there is no capacity for any response of any kind within the city. That's why we look at those overlapping calls so closely," Chief Pirie noted. "We have to [ask ourselves] if we're at a fire, but an alarm comes in, can we just put that in a queue? It's triage - much like EMS [Emergency Medical Services] does."

A response to a motor vehicle collision is another example of how resources can be delayed. Typically, Airdrie's Fire Department will send one fire engine to deal with a fire on the scene, with a rescue vehicle reserved for extricating individuals out of cars. 

"We need to look at our system and say, 'Can we use our engines in a different way to accomplish both the fire and the rescue capacity, or release those vehicles quicker?' On car accidents, our staff are tied up; [they] can't call for tow trucks, for example, until the police arrive, which can be quite delayed because they're busy too."

Examining mutual aid agreements 

While Airdrie's Fire Department has mutual aid agreements with neighbouring fire stations in the region, the relationship, though vital will also have to be examined as to whether it is sustainable. He noted that the city's fire department relies on both Crossfield and Rocky View County Fire Services, and it is doing so to supplement the resource strain.

Chief Pirie said that incidents that are, 'extenuating, serious long-term incidents that happen infrequently' are when mutual aid agreements should most often be used.

"It's when you start to see that as a normal part of business; that's a difficult place to be and, right now, mutual aid is a normal part of our day-to-day business and that's where we need to move away from."

The hope is that the resource strain will be alleviated with the opening of the Highland Park Fire Station; though the evolving question is whether that will be enough come 2026.

"By the time that station opens, will the call volume have already exceeded the capacity of the department even at that time? Yes, we're feeling the strain; yes, I feel like we're behind, but we're extremely grateful [that City] council recognizes this and is investing in us for that 2026 opening."

Staffing levels in the present and future

Chief Pirie underlined that he is grateful Airdrie's city council recognized the needs of the fire department and approved within the 2024 budget more staffing, adding that while the staffing levels are enough for the present, whether they will be enough for the coming years, is uncertain.

"The reality is that in 2026, when we bring the Highland Park Station staff on, we are actually only staffed to deal with residential fire at that point. But, we are grateful for the investment and I don't want to detract from that."

Is there a willingness to accept more risk?

While Fire Chief Pirie is unsure if all the challenges can be tackled within one calendar year, he said it comes down to a succinct question.

"Are we willing to accept more risk to increase the accessibility of our resources?" 

He pointed to a historical example of this question being put into practice. Two decades ago, the fire department ceased treating residential alarms as building fires to reduce the resources being sent down to a single fire engine.

"We know that a percentage of alarms are legitimate fires. The question is: Are you willing to assume the risk that the majority of them are false, and deal with a small percentage that are real? It's a difficult question to answer and we've been doing it for a lot of years," he said. "We have found that to be very effective [and] now we need to ask ourselves, are we willing to look at that for both commercial and multi-unit responses?"

Mental health of firefighters is a priority for the present and future

Despite the city's fire service feeling the resource strain, one 2023 statistic illustrates that there is good news to be had when it comes to first responder mental health. In its key findings, the fire department stated that there has been a, 'drastic reduction in mental health-related disability, with more staff accessing programs promptly allowing them to continue working.'

When the City's Fire Chief was asked to elaborate on it, he said that there were zero members off of work due to mental health-related issues.

"I want to underscore how much the organization is investing in staff resources," he said. "We care about them and when people can get access to psychologists, counselling, and deal with the issues that -  quite frankly - we expose them to as an employer; we want to make sure they have [that help] so that they can function. I'm very proud of what we're doing here for mental health." 

Currently, Airdrie has three fire stations, with the newest fire station in Highland Park estimated to be opening in 2026. In December, the fire department also announced that it was looking to hire four full-time firefighters who are also primary care paramedics. The closing date for the job application is Friday, January 5. 

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