Sudbury is in a bit of a tizzy over proposed changes to its fire and paramedic services. The proposed plan will see nine of the current 24 fire halls closed and a move to reduce the number of volunteer firefighters and hire more full time firefighters. The staff report estimates that the full-time compliment would go from 108 to 166 within the next decade, while the volunteer ranks would be almost cut in half from the current staffing level of 350.
Sudbury is a very large and dispersed municipality with the central core area served by full time firefighters and outlying areas served by volunteers who are paid part-time employees. Under the new plan, Sudbury's municipal government maintains that firefighters would be able to reach 90 percent of Greater Sudbury within nine minutes, as opposed to the current 69 percent. Part of what is planned is an equalization of services to standardize and improve coverage and response times. However, part of the plan also involves composite stations staffed by both full-time and volunteer firefighters, as well as increases in taxes in the areas currently served by volunteer firefighters.
It is useful to see where Greater Sudbury stands in its fire service costs relative to other cities in Ontario. Figure 1 uses data from the BMA Management Consulting 2016 Municipal Study to plot the net per capita fire service costs (including amortization of any capital assets) for cities in Ontario with more than 100,000 of population as well as the Northern Ontario Five (N5) – Thunder Bay, Timmins, Sault Ste Marie, North Bay, and Greater Sudbury. The results show quite a difference in per capita costs ranging from a high of $273 in Thunder Bay to a low of $102 in Milton. Sudbury’s costs are quite modest coming in at $149 – the lowest among the N5 – and placing 22nd among the 27 cities in Figure 1.
Of course, one can understand the concerns of ratepayers in Greater Sudbury that the proposed changes will raise costs and therefore raise taxes. The costs of fire fighting according to the BMA Municipal Study 2016 Report can vary as a result of a number of factors, which include:
1. The nature and extent of fire risks: The type of building construction, i.e. apartment dwellings vs. single-family homes versus institutions such as hospitals
2. Geography: Topography, urban/rural mix, road congestion and fire station locations and travel distances from those stations
3. Fire prevention and education efforts: Enforcement of the fire code, and the presence of working smoke alarms
4. Collective agreements: Differences in what stage of multi‐year agreements municipalities are at and also differences in agreements about how many staff are required on a fire vehicle
5. Staffing model: Full‐time firefighters or composite (full‐time and part‐time)
Costs in the end are an interactive function of the geographic area that must be served as well as the population base in that area that is available to cover the costs as well as its compactness - in other words, population density is a factor. The importance of population density as a determinant of fire service costs is highlighted in Figure 2, which plots the net costs per capita of Figure 1 against population density (population per square kilometer) and reveals an inverse relationship when a linear regression is fitted to the data. It of course does not control for any other variables and there is a fair amount of dispersion (the R-squared is also very low) around the fitted relationship but if Sudbury’s population density is plugged into the relationship, all other thing given, the per capita cost of its fire services rise to 181 dollars per capita. Thus for Sudbury to be at 149 dollars per capita it must mean there are other factors affecting its costs or it is doing something to keep its costs well below – nearly 20 percent below - what is predicted by its population density alone.
It is the volunteer staffing model which has probably been a factor in keeping Sudbury’s fire fighting costs per capita relatively low given the large land area that must be served and the accompanying low population density. Moving away from this model will probably bring Sudbury’s per capita costs more in line with other major Ontario municipalities. No wonder ratepayers are upset. At the same time, making the changes needs to weigh the improvements in service and response time that are expected to emerge against the expected additional costs. It is an important cost-benefit analysis and should make for an interesting City council meeting in Sudbury on March 21st.