Cochrane firefighters are sounding the alarm that more boots on the ground are needed to keep pace with rapid growth and urban sprawl and it's become a matter of public safety.

Chris Chyka, president of Cochrane Firefighters Association, says they have 24 full-time firefighters but need 12 to 13 more to keep the community safe.

He says the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) standard is one firefighter per thousand people and Cochrane currently has six-member crews. That number drops to five, even four, when members are sick or away on course. He says ideally they need 10-member crews. 

ChrisFirefighter Chris Chyka at the 2021 Firefighters Stairclimb Challenge staged on the staircase in the Cochrane Ranche during the pandemic. (file photo)

The draft of the town's 2024 budget doesn't include the hiring of any additional firefighters but calls for actively seeking to implement recommendations from the recently completed Fire Services Master Plan, which emphasizes the need for more personnel.

"I understand economically times are a little bit tough, and I get there's only one taxpayer, but as Cochrane continues to grow, and especially with some of the urban sprawl--we have Southbow that has been approved, we've got the fringes of Sunset--it's taking us longer and longer to get out there and we are just behind on our staffing to properly do our job."

Of the 73 recommendations in the recently completed Cochrane Fire Services plan, completed by Transitional Solutions Inc., the number one priority is increasing full-time staffing levels.

The plan also calls for the need to develop a satellite station in or near Southbow Landing within the next five years and another satellite station in Sunset Ridge within the next 10 years.

"When Cochrane was a little bit smaller, where we're currently located was probably OK," says Chyka. "But as we've grown, responses dwindled a little bit because we're responding from that central station. We have topographical, and geographical problems, we have heavy trucks full of water trying to climb these hills and it takes us a little longer to get out there. So the centrally located fire hall now is probably not meeting the needs."

He says call volumes have increased 30 per cent since 2021.

"As the call volume increases, just by the numbers, the severity of some of these calls are going to increase as well."

The Cochrane fire hall is capable of accommodating 10 personnel at any one time.

"It's not the equipment that puts them out," points out Chyka. "We can have the best equipment in the world and if you look at our fire hall now, it's large. We have a number of trucks in there, but what I don't think the general public knows is we can only staff one engine and two people on an accessory vehicle. So minimum staffing on one engine is four people, and then an accessory vehicle only gives us two more people."

He says that's not adequate, especially when you're fighting a large-scale fire, such as the February 2022 fire of the Ramada or the multiple unfinished condominiums that were destroyed in Fireside in June 2018 in close proximity to occupied homes.

Today's housing density and current construction materials further increase the threat of fire spreading rapidly to other homes.

"Once one house gets going and if we're delayed in getting there, and we don't have the right manpower, we could lose houses 2 and 3 on either side of it."

While Cochrane has mutual aid agreements in place with other fire services, including Calgary and Rocky View, their arrival on the scene typically falls outside the crucial first 10 minutes and is dependent upon availability.

He says their request isn't out of line, pointing to Okotoks, which has a smaller population than Cochrane.

"They just bolstered each platoon to 10 per shift. If you look at Airdrie, they're discussing potentially a fourth hall. I know Canmore is looking at its current fire response model. If I go a little further north to Fort Saskatchewan, I think they just hired eight additional firefighters," he says.

"A lot of these communities are starting to address their growth, things like urban sprawl, delayed response times. I would like to see council give consideration to doing the same here."

Cochrane increased the size of its fire crews to six from four in 2018, when it had a population of 27,960 people.

UPDATE: A request was made for an interview with Mayor Jeff Genung on Nov. 10 on the topic. One week later, he still hasn't responded.

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