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Closing hall, fewer fire trucks in fire chief's plans?

The insight comes from video of a closed session of city council, which had previously been under wraps
20151013 CitySSM Council Closed Door Meeting Malcolm White Oct 13, 2015
A screen capture shows city clerk Malcolm White about to turn off a camera from a closed meeting of council on October 13, 2015. The video was obtained by the local firefighters' union through a Freedom of Information request.

The city may propose closing the downtown fire station and reducing the number of fire trucks operated by the city, according to a recording of an October closed meeting of city council, which was recently released.

The in-camera meeting of city council took place two weeks before Fire Chief Mike Figliola presented his plan to cut 20 firefighter positions by attrition over three years.

A recording of the meeting was obtained by the Sault Ste. Marie Professional Fire Fighters Association (SSMPFFA) as a result of a Freedom of Information request and shared with SooToday at our request.

That in-camera meeting offered mayor and council a heads up regarding Figliola’s realignment plan, in which some front-line firefighter positions are being replaced by paramedics, paramedic supervisors, mechanics and officers dedicated to fire education, among other positions.

Mayor Christian Provenzano was present in the meeting, as were councillors Paul Christian, Marchy Bruni, Lou Turco, Frank Fata, Susan Myers, Joe Krmpotich, Ross Romano and Judy Hupponen and CAO Albert Horsman.

At the time of the meeting, Terry Sheehan's Ward 2 seat had recently been vacated and Rick Niro, councillor for Ward 6, recused himself from the meeting due to a conflict.

Ward 1 Councillor Steve Butland was not present, nor was Ward 3 Councillor Matthew Shoemaker.

In addition to the emergency services realignment plan that he presented, the chief also spoke of longer-term plans for the existing stations and equipment used by the service.

Figliola said a more formal fire station review needs to be completed, but he already has his eye on the station on Tancred Street. 

The downtown area, says Figliola, can be covered mostly by the other three stations.

“If we were to take that right off the map and not response from there, the area can be covered in a four-to-six minute timeline with the other three stations,” said Figliola.

He added, “basically, Station 1 downtown is redundant from a response standpoint.”

Robert Shaughnessy, secretary for SSMPFFA, said the August 1, 2015 fire on Towers Street is an example where people were rescued from a burning building after the arrival of firefighters — who came, Shaughnessy says, from the Tancred Station.

Most of the high rise buildings in the city — which offer additional challenges and can be more time-sensitive for firefighters — are located in the downtown core, notes Shaughnessy.

One of two marine rescue units, which was previously housed at Station 1, has already been put up for auction.

Figliola said other agencies should be relied on for water rescue.

“Around us, we have Coast Guard, we have three different police forces, we have the MNR. They have all the water resource boats we are going to need if we need them moving forward,” said Figliola.

The chief also spoke during the in-camera meeting of cutting some of the large firefighting vehicles operated by the service, suggesting six fire trucks was too many for a city this size.

Two of the current fire trucks will need to be replaced within the next three years, said Figliola, but he suggested not replacing them, lowering the city’s complement of fire trucks to four.

He said the city will save about $1 million per truck by not replacing them.​

Calls for comment from Figliola and CAO Horsman were not immediately returned. It is unclear if the long-term plans presented at the October meeting are still being considered.

The messaging of the chief’s plan was largely consistent with the presentation he made two weeks later in open council, but at times his tone was much more candid.

At the time of the October 13 meeting, city staff had not yet presented the realignment plan to the firefighters' union, but Figliola anticipated opposition.

“Yes, they are probably going to fight it and unfortunately they are going to go back to the age-old line of, ‘Babies will burn and mothers will die.’ But we know that doesn’t happen any more,” said Figliola.

The chief also said when there is a fully-involved house fire, it is often too late to conduct rescue by the time the fire trucks arrive.

After two minutes, 'No one is going to get in and no one is going to get out,' he said, adding, “Death has already occurred."

“That’s the reality, and that’s what we have to deal with,” said Figliola.

For that reason, Figliola suggested more resources be spent in fire education — which Shaughnessy acknowledges is important, but not at the expense of fire suppression.

Figliola said smoke alarms and escape plans are how you save lives, not building more fire stations.

“You can’t possibly build enough fire stations in any city — small, medium or large — to get there win two minutes. It would cost you millions,” said Figliola.

Reached by phone today, City Clerk Malcolm White said in-camera meetings are permitted under the Municipal Act for certain situations, including contract negotiations and human resources issues.

The video was released to SSMPFFA by the city following a Freedom of Information request and an application to Ontario’s privacy commissioner.

SSMPFFA received the video in an edited form. A presentation from the city’s human resources commissioner is referenced in the video, but was not included in the release.

An appeal has been made by SSMPFFA to receive the unedited video.