Town council wants to find a way to add four additional full-time firefighters in 2024 without increasing taxes beyond the 3.45 per cent projected in the draft budget.

While council had little appetite for increasing taxes further, they wanted fire suppression personnel to keep pace with the rapid growth in the community and begin to align with what has been proposed in the recently updated fire services plan.

Without making other cuts, adding the firefighters would add an estimated 1.86 per cent to the tax increase. That's something councillors like Morgan Nagel simply won't tolerate.

"Many people are renewing their mortgages, interest rates are going up, and the cost of food is going up. None of the small businesses and none of the households have the luxury of saying, well this is how much my mortgage has gone up, so boss, I'm going to need a 10 per cent raise. Nobody else gets to do that, so we need to behave the same way families in our community are budgeting, and we say this is what we can afford, so let's figure out what we can do with that amount of money."

Nagel admitted he was still dealing with the sting of voting in favour of a 10 per cent tax increase in 2022 and is sticking with his commitment to make that a one-time gesture to allow the town to play catchup.

Councillor Marni Fedeyko believes public safety is number one and is convinced there are cuts that can be found in elsewhere in the budget.

"We want to focus on coming back with something where we're not eliminating safety features in our community," said Fedeyko. "I think that's of the utmost importance of what we need to be doing. I say we figure out ways to trim fat from the budget."

READ: Firefighters sounding the alarm over staffing level

Stacey Loe, recently appointed executive director of corporate services who previously headed Protective and Community Services, provided council with some insight on the costs and current staffing situation.

To add four 1st class firefighters is estimated to cost $655,168, or $163,792 per full-time firefighter, amounting to $230 per resident. That includes salary, benefits, turnout gear, protective equipment, and training.

Compared to other communities, Loe told council the cost per resident is lower here than in Airdrie, Canmore, Leduc, Lloydminster, Grande Prairie, Spruce Grove, Okotoks, and St. Albert.

Cochrane has 0.75 firefighters per thousand residents. A commonly used formula is one firefighter per thousand.

"While we aren't the lowest, we are at the lower end of the groupings, along with Canmore and Fort Saskatchewan, with Okotoks, Medicine Hat, and Grande Prairie all over that one firefighter per thousand."

The cost of living adjustment for members of the local firefighters union is scheduled to increase by 3.5 per cent in 2024, following increases of four per cent in 2022, and 3.75 per cent in 2023. It was two per cent in the two previous years.

Since 2018, the town policy has called for having no more than six firefighters on shift, and no less than four. With leaves, vacancies, and vacations, that full complement has reached 63.8 per cent of the time in 2023, down from 69 per cent in 2022.

Five-person crews were on duty 30 per cent of the time (23.3 per cent in 2022) and 6.2 per cent of the time there were only four on duty compared to 7.7 per cent the year previous.

The first 10 minutes are crucial in preventing a fire from spreading to other buildings and houses, and having a large enough crew on hand is essential. Calling in support from elsewhere is typically outside of that 10-minute window. 

Local firefighters have been calling for increasing fire suppression staff. They believe it hasn't kept pace with rapid growth and urban sprawl and has become a matter of public safety.

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