Averaging four callouts per day, Langford Fire Rescue is becoming one of the busier fire departments in the region, but it has no plans to shift away from the majority volunteer model.
In 2010, Langford firefighters attended 1,445 incidents that include medical emergencies, vehicle crashes, building alarms and actual structure fires. That’s up from 1,303 calls in 2009 and 1,164 in 2008, and more than double from 14 years ago — the department had 702 callouts in 1996.
“We are seeing about a 10 per cent growth each year in call volumes,” fire Chief Bob Beckett said to Langford’s protective services committee. “It speaks to the growth and number of people enjoying our community.”
Langford has a composite crew of eight full-time paid officers and 55 volunteer firefighters spread through three stations in the city. Beckett said it’s unlikely the number of firefighters or fire halls will change dramatically in upcoming years.
A fourth fire station is on the books for Bear Mountain, but that project remains on hold until residential construction regains momentum. Bear Mountain residents pay into a fund for a future fire station and the resort company has committed land for the project.
“Until there is sufficient growth in that development area, it’s hard to justify the expense of another station and personnel,” Beckett said.
Over the years, the department has adapted to an increasing workload by creating a “platoon system” where members rotate who is paged for a callout.
For larger emergencies, such as a structure fire, callouts between the three stations can be staggered, depending on the resources are needed.
In 2009, the department installed a fire demand management computer system which stores a database of buildings floor plans, alarm box locations and the type of building construction, all to help firefighters before they step into a burning structure.
“We are always cognizant to ensure appropriate resources. We’ve looked at different systems on how to not overtax out volunteer staff and paid people,” Beckett said. “My job is to make sure (the demand) is balanced and people don’t burn out.”
While the number of callouts is increasing, the number of structure fires is on the decline. Beckett credits improved building codes and mandatory sprinkler systems in condominiums.
“For years we have had less structure fires, partly because of fire prevention and public education, and also because of building code changes,” he said. “Buildings are built with better fire resistant materials, and certainly the use of residential sprinklers in multi-family dwellings makes a huge difference for us.”
The composite staffing model remains a good match to the size of the Langford and the demands on the fire department, Beckett said. Langford fire has an annual $1.6 million budget, far less than what would be needed to fund an equivalent full-time force.
There are no hard and fast rules to what style of fire department is best for a community. Esquimalt, Victoria and Saanich are all career departments, for instance, while Surrey remains a composite.
“Our focus will be remaining a composite model for the foreseeable future,” Beckett said. “I think it’s what is best suited to the community, it meets the needs and is affordable.
“I think we’ve done our very best to manage the challenge of growth and development. I’m really grateful to the kind of commitment we see from our paid staff and volunteers.”