Puslinch Fire Master Plan offers options to improve response times in large township

Puslinch may need to come up with new strategies to look at the future of firefighting in the community.

Part of that could mean working to establish automatic aid agreements with the cities of Guelph and Cambridge.

Numbers indicate that for parts of Puslinch, full-time firefighters from Cambridge or Guelph can reach an emergency call even before Puslinch volunteer firefighters are able to leave the fire hall. Despite the strong commitment and training of local volunteers, sometimes it comes down to a matter of time.

As preliminary findings on the Puslinch Fire Master Plan were presented publicly on June 11, it was clear there is still much work ahead.

Though it was nearly a packed house at the Puslinch Fire Hall in Aberfoyle, very few in attendance were from the general public.

The majority of the three dozen people attending were fire fighters, councillors and staff. Only a handful of those attending were unaffiliated members of the public.

Steve Thurlow of Dillon Consulting highlighted key aspects of the report. He said the study has taken longer than anticipated in part because of potential changes to fire safety guidelines.

He stated early findings provide the foundations in identifying strengths and weaknesses as well as opportunities and challenges for the department.

He noted both fire chief Steven Goode and deputy chief Josh Shepherd spent considerable time collecting data, including a fair amount of time at the fire station and driving around the community to become more familiar with it.

Work has also involved discussions with the firefighters to determine what they see as strengths, weaknesses and challenges in the department.

Thurlow considered the number of annual emergency calls Puslinch firefighters respond to fairly consistent for the past five years, ranging from 285 to 359.

However, when combined with the area contracted to the Cambridge fire department, that number jumps to 430 calls in one year.

“We have to be very cognizant of the number of times we are asking volunteer firefighters to come out and the work load,” Thurlow said.

He added local firefighters respond to a wide range of calls, including motor vehicle accidents, medical calls, alarm systems, and others, with calls for fires totalling roughly 40 each year.

Thurlow said for an area such as Puslinch, that figure indicates the department “is doing good things.” He noted Puslinch has a pretty good prevention program and a good education program.

Thurlow also stated the historic hamlets of Aberfoyle and Morriston are at a higher fire risk because of their age and proximity to other buildings.

Thurlow said discussions with both council and firefighters indicate a strong commitment to the volunteer model for a fire department.

He sees a highly committed group of volunteers – but turnout and travel times are a challenge.

“From my perspective, the public simply can’t expect a fire station on every corner,” he said. “The best way to prevent a fire is through fire prevention and public education. Quite frankly, I describe the firefighters as the fail-safe. If we don’t do our job well in the first two areas, we’re going to be on scene.”

Thurlow noted Puslinch has contracted Cambridge to cover a specific portion in the southwest of the township and has an automatic aid agreement with Guelph-Eramosa. Automatic aid is very much a focus is what is happening across the province, he added.

Thurlow later commented that an automatic aid agreement does not necessarily mean the cities would take over services, but they would be able to initially take point by potentially being first on the scene until Puslinch firefighters arrived.

On the fire prevention side, he said Puslinch has developed internal procedures for smoke alarms – although it was unable to meet its 2013 target.

Puslinch has a part-time fire prevention officer who is shared with Wellington North.

“It brings into interesting strategies which are being seen as leading edge across the province.”

Because the township has a population of 84.8 people per square mile, it qualifies as a rural area demand zone, requiring a minimum of six firefighters responding to an emergency within 14 minutes.

He noted that traditionally the township recruits volunteers from the whole township and suggested consideration might be given to targeted recruitment from areas closer to the fire hall.

At the same time, Thurlow noted the department has recruited volunteers who are full-time firefighters in other municipalities and a tremendous resource.

But the challenge today is the rural standard of six firefighters responding within 14 minutes is not being met within parts of the township. He said the automatic aid agreement with the Rockwood station is a good strategy to get firefighters on scene as quickly as possible.

He spoke of the potential of an automatic aid agreement with Cambridge and/or the city of Guelph. Because both have full-time fire departments with firefighters stationed at a hall, Thurlow used maps to illustrate that in some instances, those departments could be first on the scene even before firefighters depart from the Puslinch fire hall.

Councillor Matthew Bulmer asked if any consideration was given to a composite department – including a mix of full-time and volunteer firefighters.

Thurlow said the concept of full-time firefighters in downtown Puslinch is not on the horizon. “I think there are a lot of other options which can be looked at long before we get to that,” he said.