Fire Response Time: A double Council update to cover off our December 11 meeting and our very light December 4 meeting (there was nothing significant to write about from December 4). One of the major items before Council was proposed changes to the fire department’s response time standards. The benchmark for fire response times across the country is set by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The NFPA identifies the ideal time to dispatch emergency calls, turnout from the fire station, and travel to the scene. The NFPA all-in time for the first firetruck to arrive in an urban environment is just over 6 minutes.
Across the country, the NFPA standard is regarded as the ideal target. Very few municipalities achieve the NFPA’s aggressive timelines. HRM sets out our response times in a 2006 Administrative Order, which provided a bit more time for travel than the NFPA recommends. HRM’s order was also, however, more optimistic than the NFPA in terms of dispatch and turnout time. HRM’s 2006 administrative order expected the fire department to arrive on scene in 7.0 minutes, but HRM rarely met those timelines.
Generally, the fire department is right on the mark when it comes to travel times, but it takes longer to dispatch and get out of the station. HRM engaged a consultant to evaluate response times and the recommendation was to provide additional time for dispatch and leaving the station. The new all-in standard for career firefighters in the urban area will be 8 minutes. The addition of an extra minute isn’t diminishing service. No one in our fire department takes a cavalier attitude towards calls for help. They respond as quickly as they can. Changing HRM’s standard doesn’t mean that response times will now be a minute slower, it just means that HRM’s expectations are now closer to the actual reality of what’s achievable. If we want to shave seconds off response time, it’s going to require focussing on turnout time from stations because dispatch is largely set, and travel times can’t be improved without investing 100s of millions in new stations. The Fire Department is actively working on improving its processes and has recently created a performance excellence team whose focuses is on data and the analysis side of operations. The Chief indicated during discussion that the expects to be able to make some improvements in response time over the next few years, largely through turnout improvements. Council adopted the revised 2018 response times.
|NFPA||HRM 2006||HRM 2018|
|12 Firefighters on Scene||480||480||
Besides response times, the review of the Fire Department had some specific recommendations for the Airport and Fall River area. Fall River’s station 45 is currently a composite station, which means it’s staffed by career firefighters during the day. Volunteer firefighters are on call during the day to backup the career firefighters, and are the primary response at night and on weekends when the career firefighters are off duty. As Fall River has grown though, the volunteer model has become increasingly stretched. Volunteer firefighters are essential to HRM. They are the bedrock of rural firefighting. Volunteer response times, however, are slower because firefighters have the extra step of travelling to the station. Volunteers also aren’t paid to be full-time firefighters and they shouldn’t be expected to deal with call volumes that are similar to what career firefighters face.
With those two points in mind, the threshold for switching from volunteer to career firefighters is when the population density reaches about 100 people per square kilometer. Fall River is well above that threshold (210.5 per km2) and is the only dense area in HRM that doesn’t have career firefighters as the 24/7 response. At the same time, HRM doesn’t have good coverage nearby at the Airport. In the event of a plane crash, the airport’s firefighters are there, but they are a specialized service. What the Airport’s firefighters aren’t equipped to do is fight a structural fire at the Airport or next door in the Aerotech Industrial Park. A structural fire is HRM’s job. The two nearest fire stations to the Airport are both volunteer stations that have just 4 firefighters on the current roster. This is not an appropriate setup given the infrastructure at the Airport.
Given the need for improved capabilities at both the Airport and Fall River, the Fire Department is recommending hiring additional firefighters to fully staff the Fall River Station. The big challenge with that recommendation is that adding overnight and weekend shifts of career firefighters to the Fall River Station is a $1.6 million increase in costs that’s not currently budgeted for. It’s already proving to be a tough budget season and this is another pressure being added to HRM’s bottom-line. The addition of career firefighters in Fall River will be considered in the New Year when Council deliberates over the 2019-2020 budget, but I don’t see much choice in the matter given the growth in Fall River and the development around the Airport.
The Three Capital Funding Requests: Besides the fire department review, the other items gathering attention was the trio of requests from non-profit community groups for assistance in funding their projects. The three requests were from the YMCA, the Culture Link and Hospice Halifax
YMCA: The Y’s ask was for $1,500,000 and Council was considering staff’s recommendation to refer the request to Council’s 2019/2020 budget deliberations for consideration of a one-time grant of $1,000,000. Construction on the Y’s new home at the corner of South Park and Sackville Streets is well underway at this point. The new building will have a track, pool, gym, fitness studio, and community meeting space. The development will also have residential and commercial space to help offset costs. The building will be a condominium allowing the Y to own its share rather than leasing the space.
When the Y development was originally approved back in 2012, the Y’s pitch was that the project wouldn’t require HRM funding if additional development rights were granted to help pay for it. The 2012 Council weighed its options, and decided that the public benefit of a new Y was worth it and additional height was allowed on the property. Unfortunately, construction costs, the decreasing value of the Canadian dollar, and inflation have conspired to drive up the total bill to $36.5 million, a $5.5 million increase over the 2011 estimates. The Y’s request to HRM was to help fill a portion of that gap.
Not all my colleagues were thrilled at the Y’s request and the timing of the Y’s announcement that the new space wouldn’t have a daycare didn’t help make the case, but I didn’t really share the trepidation. The Y is a well-established charity that fills a key recreational role. HRM’s one-time $1,000,000 contribution is really a bargain when you think about the cost to HRM of building and operating equivalent facilities like the Canada Games Centre and the Sportsplex. Recreation is a core municipal mandate and it makes sense to me to help ensure the Y’s complimentary efforts are successful. Council voted 14-2 (Adams and Zurawski dissenting) to refer the Y’s request to the 2019-2020 budget.
Culture Link: Another sizable request came from the Link Performing Arts Society. The Society asked HRM for a $1.3 million contribution towards converting the old World Trade and Convention Centre on Argyle Street into an arts space. The staff recommendation was to provide a $1.0 million grant. The Link project will be a cultural hub providing space for tv production, a 1,800 seat performance hall, dance studios, 160 seat cinema, and shared office space for not-for-profits in the culture sector. After a splashy announcement on Monday, the Federal and Provincial governments confirmed that they would provide almost $10 million towards the Link’s $13.0 million cost (the building’s owner, Armco is providing $2.1 million).
Like the Y proposal, I see the Link as providing good value to HRM. The $1.0 million municipal contribution leverages Provincial and Federal funding to create cultural venues in the heart of Downtown with tv production and performance spaces that currently don’t exist in HRM. The old convention centre’s large rooms makes for a unique opportunity to create performance spaces in a very cost-effective way. HRM has contemplated constructing a Performing Arts Centre in the past, which would cost many millions. In comparison, the Link really looks like a bargain. The Link shouldn’t require any ongoing support either since the project envisions commercial tenants covering the operational costs. Council approved the Link contribution 15-2 (Nicoll and Karsten dissenting).
Hospice: The $500,000 to the Hospice was the one ask from a community group that I couldn’t support (Hospice’s ask was for $1,000,000). My issue with the Hospice isn’t the idea or the facility; a hospice is something we really need! My concern is that HRM was being asked to provide a direct contribution to the project. A hospice is a place where people go to die. In its absence, people currently die at home, in hospital or in nursing homes. To me, the Hospice is really a healthcare project. It’s about providing palliative care, which puts it squarely in the Provincial realm. The Province seems to agree since they’re providing half of the Hospice’s operating funding on an ongoing basis. HRM’s staff also recommended against providing any money to the project. For HRM to be getting involved in this one is mandate creep, which, for a good cause, isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you have the money. Unfortunately, HRM has run out of cash and we have to start making some choices about our priorities.
In the New Year, Council is going to be entering into some very difficult budget discussions. We are really short of funds on the capital side of things. If we don’t opt to rearrange projects, raise taxes even further, take on more debt, draw down our savings, or some combination of all of those options, then HRM is going to fail to deliver on:
- the Integrated Mobility Plan’s commitments on transit priority and an active transportation grid
- building bus-only lanes on Bayers Road and Robie Street
- implementing the next phase of Transit’s Moving Forward Together Plan
- improving cycling connections on both sides of the Macdonald Bridge
- making the most of Phase 2 of daylighting the Sawmill River and connecting Dartmouth Cove into the rest of Downtown
- completing increasingly urgent repairs at several buildings including the Halifax North Library and the Penhorn Lake Washrooms
- the rollout of complete streets (sidewalks, road redesign, etc) will be greatly reduced
- and, for fun added fun, we’ll be stuck with those laughably super-sized transit tickets because smart fare payment will be delayed
With a huge hole in our existing budget that will prevent us from delivering on our core municipal priorities, I couldn’t justify spending money on a provincial project, especially given that Hospice Halifax’s latest fundraising figures indicates that they don’t really need the HRM money. It’s a favourite project of many on Council though so it was no surprise to me that the Hospice vote passed 12-5 (myself, Smith, Nicoll, Adams and Karsten in opposition).
All Ages and Abilities Bike Network: Council also went over an Information Report on the proposed All Ages and Abilities Bike Network for the Regional Centre. The proposed network was a central piece in the Integrated Mobility Plan, with a proposed completion date of 2022. In Dartmouth, the network includes existing sections of multi-use trail along the Harbour and Lake Banook, but it will also see new lanes and local street bikeways created to form a network. The report lays out a timeline for Dartmouth’s projects as follows:
Macdonald Bridge Connections
|Harbour Trail (the missing gaps)||
Dahlia Street Local Street Bikeway
|North End Dartmouth Local Street Bikeways||
|Harris Road – Grahams Grove||
Slayter Street Local Street Bikeway
|Canal Greenway (Sullivan’s Pond – Harbour Trail)||
Unfortunately, there is a big “but” that’s looming over the whole All Ages and Abilities Bike Network. Right now, there isn’t enough money in the draft capital budget to build it, which means that if Council doesn’t opt to provide more funding, it won’t be completed by 2022. Council will have to decide in the New Year during our budget deliberations whether we’re serious about funding the active transportation network and transit improvements to make meaningful change or not. It’s something we need to do because we can’t keep trying to cram more and more cars through our streets. The cost of doing less for active transportation and transit isn’t zero!
HRM needs to shift people who are able to make changes to more sustainable modes of transportation. That means more people walking, biking and taking transit. The Regional Plan sets a goal of having 30% commuting by active transportation or transit by 2031, but over the last several years, HRM has actually been heading in the wrong direction. We’re actually farther away from the 30% goal now than when the Regional Plan was adopted. According to the census, from 2006 to 2016, the proportion of people travelling by car to work in HRM rose from 75% to 78%. This is primarily because growth in suburban areas, where almost everyone drives, has meant an increasing proportion of people are using cars to commute. We need to do better, we need to make the alternatives more attractive, and that’s going to require investing in the kind of city we want to be.
- Approved a funding increase in HRM’s senior snow removal program and for flood mitigation
- Extended the University Avenue protected bike lane pilot project until Council is ready to make the lane permanent
- Entered into a tax agreement with the Halifax Airport Authority (replaces the old grant subsidy)
- Opted not to proceed with a minor adjustment to the water service boundary in Sackville, but agreed to revisit the question again when the Regional Plan is next updated
- Initiated a planning process to consider a comprehensive plan for the Margeson Drive area in Sackville
- Directed staff to carry out an environmental assessment on HRM-owned lands near Barry’s Run in Port Wallace that may have been contaminated by gold mining in the past
- Finalized Council appointments to HRM’s standing committees
- First reading for bylaw changes to move the Solar City Program from a pilot into an ongoing municipal program and first reading for changes to the Noise Bylaw allowing staff approval for repeat requests
- Requested staff reports on making the pedestrian route from the Sackville Manor Mobile Home Park to the Cobequid Bus Terminal safer, and on potentially charging developers for removing trees