City of Brantford Council has unanimously supported a resolution to hire more probationary firefighters during a Committee of the Whole, Planning and Administration meeting on Tuesday, October 10, 2023.
Todd Binkley, Fire Chief of the Brantford Fire Department, was present to talk about the impact of firefighters and communications dispatchers who are on presumptive post-traumatic stress leave through the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).
Binkley noted that studies indicate that there is between a seven and 37 per cent prevalence rate of PTSD symptoms amongst firefighters.
“Every day, the Branford Fire Department responds to many emergency incidents that expose firefighters and fire dispatchers to situations that are highly stressful, dangerous and even traumatic,” he said. “Exposure to these incidents can increase the risk of the development of occupational mental stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
He said that since 2016, 15 firefighter/communication dispatchers in Brantford have gone on approved PTSD or mental stress leaves, and that of the 15, seven have entered the return-to-work process. Eight members have not yet returned to work.
Minimum staffing levels for the department is set by council and based on the needs and circumstance of the community.
In 2022, council approved the hiring of eight additional firefighters to fully staff the aerial downtown and increased the minimum staffing number from 19 to 21 firefighters, along with two communication operators on duty.
Having 31 personnel per platoon, allow the Fire Department to meet the minimum staffing number and account for personnel of on legislative leaves including vacation, statutory holidays, bereavement, parental, sick and WSIB leaves.
“The council approved staffing is 116 active fire suppression members and eight communications dispatchers however currently, due to long term absences, the fire department has 104 active members in suppression and seven communications dispatchers,” he said. “This reduces the number of people available per platoon to meet the necessary minimum staffing and is causing the department to call in off-duty personnel on overtime at one and a half times the regular hourly rate as dictated in the collective agreement.”
Binkley said that in 2022, the total combined overtime hours in the suppression and communications divisions accounted for 6,901 hours and cost $519,576 to cover minimum staffing needs.
From January to July of this year, the department incurred a combined total of 8,730 hours of overtime which represents an estimated cost of $616,805.
He said that if factors remain the same for the rest of the year, it could cost an estimated $1,146,545 in overtime.
Binkley asked council to approve the hiring of seven probationary firefighters to allow the department to meet the minimum staffing requirements without using overtime hours.
He said by hiring the seven probationary firefighters to cover those on WSIB leave for more than six months, it could save the department $442,546.
Councillor Greg Martin asked Binkley if there would still be savings as these probationary firefighters moved up through the ranks.
“There will be savings every year as they progress through the ranks. The probation period is a five-year period as well as the WSIB lock-in for employees,” replied Binkley.
Councillor Martin moved a motion to decrease staffing levels to 19 in order to redirect aerial employees to the front line.
“By reducing the minimum staffing by two, that allows us to maintain at least three firefighters on each aerial, and it’s still possible to run a medical call with three – it’s not ideal, but it is possible – the driver would have to go in.”
Councillor John Sless said he wouldn’t support the amendment.
“I think a lot of thought and a lot of delving into this was done when we set the staffing numbers back when we set them and if anything, we are a much bigger city now than we were then and we will continue to become an even bigger city as we move forward,” he said. “So I think, while it sounds appealing and it’s always nice to save money, but I probably put a higher priority on saving people and saving material things. So I know it’s well intended and it’s done in the spirit of doing the right thing, but in this case I think it’s a little misguided and I won’t be supporting it.”
After more discussion with the Fire Chief, the amendment was defeated 10-1 and the vote to hire seven probationary firefighters was carried unanimously 11-0.
The resolution will receive its final vote later this month.