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West Vancouver takes closer look at fire services

Council questions budget and staffing levels in annual review
Fire services are coming under the microscope of West Vancouver council and district staff

West Vancouver receives outstanding service from its fire department, but the efficiency of that service was questioned at a council meeting Jan. 13.

With 40 fewer firefighters, the City of North Vancouver Fire Department conducted twice as many inspections and attended to 600 more fire incidents in 2012.

The city's budget is $9 million. The West Vancouver Fire Department budget is $13.2 million.

The main difference between North and West Vancouver is geography, according to Fire Chief Jim Cook. "They operate one firehall and they can reach all of the areas within their boundaries in a reasonable response time. The District of West Vancouver. .. is quite elongated and response times are much longer," he said.

West Vancouver Fire Department responded to 93 per cent of fires in 10 minutes or less in 2012.

The City of North Vancouver has 10 firefighters on duty at any time, according to Cook. West Vancouver has four fire halls and at least 18 firefighters on duty at all times.

Coun. Michael Lewis was not convinced geography alone could explain the difference.

"I default back to what's in front of me and it doesn't paint the most glorious picture," Lewis said. "I always hear the difference between West and North Vancouver is one of geography. Well, Horseshoe Bay to Taylor Way strikes me as being almost the same distance as Taylor Way to Deep Cove."

West Vancouver doesn't have the commercial component the city and district contend with, Lewis said.

"We're not worried about grain terminals exploding in West Vancouver," he said.

Both Lewis and Coun. Craig Cameron asked for more comprehensive statistics.

"I know you provide excellent service, I just need you to provide me more data so that I'm comfortable that I'm getting really efficient service," Lewis said.

In a 2013 survey, 98 per cent of West Vancouver respondents said they were totally satisfied with service from the fire department.

The fire department should provide some evidence that the 1,729 inspections they conducted in 2012 are having an effect on reducing the total number of fires in West Vancouver, according to Cameron.

"How do we measure whether it's working?" Cameron asked. "These metrics that you've provided are nice but to me they don't clarify much."

Coun. Nora Gambioli suggested cutting costs through volunteerism.

"Our police department is effectively saving about a quarter of a million dollars a year by having residents in our community act as volunteers," she said, mentioning victim services.

Council voted to add 12 full-time firefighters to the department between 1998 and 2009. Since then, council has cut one firefighter, reducing the total to 95.

The fire department's budget has increased by approximately $623,000 between 2010 and 2012.

Overtime payouts have dipped substantially since the district shelled out nearly $600,000 in 2007. The district paid $209,000 in overtime costs in 2012.

The department's thermal imaging program has opened up doorways and pathways with residents, according to assistant fire chief Martin Ernst.

While looking for heat losses in the home, other issues are often attended to, according to Ernst.

"The inevitable questions come up when the fire inspector is standing in the home after the thermal project is done: 'Hey, what about my smoke alarms?'" he said.