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HomeBusinessMcCallum’s hiring freeze and the coronavirus emergency leave Surrey a lot less safe, says union president

McCallum’s hiring freeze and the coronavirus emergency leave Surrey a lot less safe, says union president

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Bob Mackin

Last December’s hiring freeze coupled with this month’s public health emergency have led to short-staffing of fire halls in North Surrey, said the union’s president.

Mark McRae, Surrey Firefighters Association president (Vimeo)

Mark McRae, president of IAFF Local 1271, said the region that includes Guildford, Whalley and the north parts of Newton and Fleetwood would be down to 18 firefighters tonight from 26. If a two-alarm fire breaks out, 21 firefighters would be needed, meaning reinforcements would have to be called in from elsewhere in Surrey, he said.

“In this state of emergency, the last thing we need is to reduce the level of service and the front line responders that we have,” McRae told theBreaker.news. “Especially when we are already operating in a very lean and efficient capacity compared to the others in the region. We don’t have fat to trim in Surrey.”

McRae said that since March 17, Surrey has been short one or two trucks per shift. Tonight, four of the two-person rescue units will not be in service.

Last December, a majority of the city council under Mayor Doug McCallum voted to freeze fire hiring and leave the department at 364 personnel. The staffing level in North Surrey is comparable with the late 1980s. 

“We know what Surrey has done in the last 30 years, the city has grown incredibly, we’ve gone vertical in the north end, traffic congestion is significantly greater, there is far more industry, there is far more residential,” McRae said. 

McCallum, who leads the Safe Surrey Coalition council majority, did not respond to phone messages from theBreaker.news. Last December’s civic budget froze staffing of both the RCMP and fire department, so that city hall could divert funds into creating a new municipal police force. 

Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum (Surrey)

Surrey Fire Service Chief Larry Thomas said 69 firefighters were on-duty throughout the city, but did not have a regional breakdown. He said the fire department is continuing to meet its demands and performance goals, but firefighters numbering in the “mid-20s” are off work in connection to the pandemic.

“We’re having some fluctuations with high, short-term sick call-ins from staff that have had potential exposures to COVID, they call us and have to self isolate. No area is going unprotected,” Thomas said. 

“I understand that the union gets pressure if they see a truck go out of service on a temporary basis. It’s just temporary, we do have a comprehensive staffing plan in place, that’s not just for the short term, but for the long term, no one knows how long this crisis is going to last.”

Surrey Coun. Jack Hundial, who voted against the hiring freeze, said other municipalities have a ratio of one firefighter to 1,000 citizens, but Surrey is more like one to 1,500.

“So we’re already starting from a deficit position,” Hundial said.

McRae, Thomas and Hundial said they are not provided Surrey-specific data on coronavirus cases. They only receive the regional statistics for Fraser Health, which covers Burnaby to Chilliwack. In contrast, at a March 19 open meeting, Vancouver Coastal Health’s Dr. Meena Dewar told Richmond city council that the city had eight confirmed cases.

Surrey City Coun. Jack Hundial (Twitter)

McRae said more patients in Surrey are showing symptoms or are confirmed with the virus. As for the department’s personal protective equipment inventory, Thomas said “for the short-term, we’re fine.”

Surrey has not held a public city council meeting during the public health emergency. Vancouver has held two. Hundial and fellow Surrey Connect Coun. Brenda Locke’s public plea for such a meeting resulted only in a March 24 in camera session. The next scheduled public meeting is April 6.

“We need that openness, transparency, but we don’t want to jeopardize any programs or emergency measures underway now either,” Hundial said. “The public needs to know what the next steps are going to be from the City of Surrey.”

As of March 25, B.C. announced 659 cases of coronavirus, including 218 in the Fraser Health region, and 14 deaths. 

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