(File photo)

UPDATED: Surrey firefighters ‘sounding the alarm’ about trucks not in service due to budget

But Fire Chief Larry Thomas says there’s a higher than normal staff shortage because of travel, contact and symptom-related isolations because of the pandemic

** This story was updated at 10:35 a.m. Thursday, March 26

Surrey Fire Fighters Association is “sounding the alarm” about having trucks out of service in North Surrey due to staffing levels.

“In the middle of a Provincial state of emergency due to budget constraints, tonight March 25th 2020, we will have four trucks out of service in North Surrey,” the association tweeted on Wednesday afternoon (March 25).

“This leaves us with less Fire Fighters on duty than there were in 1990. Surrey deserves better.”

Surrey Fire Fighters Association president Mark McRae said the union has enough members willing to cover shifts where needed, but instead of a move by department management to call in additional staff, trucks are being “browned out,” or taken out of service temporarily.

“We’re only talking North Surrey here, (at fire halls) north of 88th Avenue,” McRae said on Wednesday. “It’s been one truck some nights, three one night, and now tonight (Wednesday) we’re at four. It’s becoming really concerning, not only for residents but our firefighters.”

But on Thursday, Surrey Fire Chief Larry Thomas told the Now-Leader the situation doesn’t have anything to do with budget constraints.

“We’re experiencing extremely high shortages of staff,” he explained, “way over double what we’d normally have. There’s lots of travel isolations, contact isolations and symptom-related isolations. And it varies from shift to shift, so for example last night we had, we make sure that we’re maintaining minimum staffing in all areas of the city but some of the areas where we have extra trucks, those are being closed down for the night but then they’re back staffed again in the morning.

“Last night there was four out of service temporarily and then today there is only two out of service, and then who knows what tomorrow brings depending on how many call-ins we get,” Thomas said.

“The important message in this I think is we continue to meet all of our call demands. The union sounded the alarm but I’m worried that the citizens think that we’re not there for them and that’s clearly not the case – we’re still responding to all our incidents, and we have a great resilient staff and when trucks are out like that, they get a few more calls per truck, but we’re still meeting all our demands, and so, we’re there.”

McRae said “no other fire department in the Lower Mainland is taking trucks out of service. If they have vacancies, they’re filling them. I just question why we in Surrey can’t do the same when we have people willing to do it. We already operate on a lean staffing model, and we brought that to the fore during last year’s budget time.”

In December, during budget discussions at Surrey City Hall, McRae made a presentation to council that began with 30 seconds of silence.

“You thought that 30 seconds of silence was long. Seconds matter. Seconds matter,” McRae said at the council meeting. “It’s important to share that because as we move forward with this budget the way it’s currently drafted, the time it takes for fire to respond will be negatively impacted.”

He noted that over the last 10 years, more than 100,000 residents have moved into Surrey, yet over that time, “we’ve only added two firefighters on duty to protect them 24 hours a day.”

Delaying resources is going to “place our department further behind,” McRae said in December. He noted there are 364 firefighters here in Surrey, which is less than half of Vancouver. “We know we do more with less year after year.”

• RELATED STORY, from December: Here’s what social media is saying about Surrey’s budget.

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