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Year-end: Optimism in 2023 for Calgary fire Chief Steve Dongworth

Calgary fire Chief Steve Dongworth expects another busy year for city firefighters in 2023.

Like many other organizations, the Calgary Fire Department (CFD) has been grappling with a changed post-pandemic world.

In LWC’s year-end interview with Calgary Fire Chief Steve Dongworth, he talked about some of the challenges, but also the successes for city firefighters in 2022.

Chief Dongworth said the CFD could reach 80,000 calls this year. That’s after a record-breaking 70,000 calls in 2021. Years prior, he said they remained static at around 60,000 calls annually.

One of the drivers behind it is the rise in social disorder calls that Calgary firefighters have been asked to handle. Those are calls involving Calgarians experiencing homelessness, addictions or mental health challenges, Dongworth said.

It’s affecting the mental health of firefighters, too.

“It takes a toll when you see people who don’t seem to be able to get themselves out of it,” Dongworth said.

“We talk a lot more about it today, as well as the mental health impact on our people, dealing with folks in the community who are experiencing those challenges.”

One of the things Chief Dongworth said they didn’t foresee in 2022, was the state of medical care in the province. It’s not just the EMS situation either, he said.  There are ambulances, Dongworth said, but oftentimes they’re sitting in hospitals, waiting for their patients to get a bed.

“I don’t know we foresaw this this happening in terms of just waiting, waiting with patients, sometimes at relatively serious calls, for an AHS unit to arrive,” Dongworth said.

Budget 2023-2026 brings welcome resources

Dongworth said the addition of a standalone Medical Response Unit (MRU) for the downtown will help them respond to the medical and social disorder calls.  One of those units is expected in mid-2023, with another being added within three years.

The MRU was made possible through a boosted budget for the 2023 to 2026 City of Calgary Service Plans and budgets.

The most recent budget saw a $34.2 million bump for the Calgary Fire Department for the 2023 to 2026 four-year cycle. They will also see another $10 million from 2024 to 2026.

The extra cash will add more firefighters, more stations and increase staffing on nine of 11 aerial trucks from two to four firefighters. That meets the current NFPA standards.

Dongworth said the additional firefighters will also allow them to provide adequate relief for vacation, sickness, training or other leaves.

“They’ve (City council) really stepped up to the plate with some investments over the next four years to get our service to where it needs to be for everything that it’s facing,” Chief Dongworth said.

Going to back to the handling of medical calls, Chief Dongworth said that the CFD’s ability to manage those calls has been a success.

“We’ve somewhat filled the gap to some degree, and I think that’s a success,” he said.

“There was just a call yesterday, which was 70 minutes waiting for an ambulance. I don’t say any of that to criticize the folks on the street with Alberta Health Services EMS, they’re doing everything they can, we know that they’re great people, but the system has broken down a little bit, to say the least.”

Dongworth also said that even with the city’s growth and the increased call volume, they’ve been able to keep response time the same as years prior.

Department HR transformation

While the Calgary Police Service human resources and organizational transformation gets a lot of the headlines, the CFD has been undertaking a lot of the same work.

Chief Dongworth said fostering a culture of equity, diversity and inclusion has been his number one priority. He said it’s a multi-year process. The Chief said there’s a strong ingrained culture in fire departments – similar to that of police, EMS and even corrections.

“We’re on a journey. There’s no endpoint to this journey. Because when you get to what you identify as an endpoint today with a five-year plan, maybe the environment has changed in five years,” he said.  

“You have to continue doing this work. I think we’ve made some progress. We still have a long way to go. There’s no question. Culture change like this doesn’t happen overnight.”

The recent budget boost will give the CFD more training resources, Dongworth said. Much of that will be geared towards officers and district chiefs. Dongworth described it a more “soft skills” training.

“We’ve done a great job in the past of technical skill training for those kinds of folks,” he said.

“We’ve never really got a handle on the soft skills training, and often in previous generations that’s been resisted. The officers often didn’t feel that that was their role. It wasn’t important. They just needed to know how to fight a fire.”

Chief Dongworth said that when you have a crew that spends much of its time in a firehall, functioning like a family, it’s important to have those skills.

“They’re asking for these skills now,” he said.

Optimism in 2023 for CFD

Chief Dongworth already assumes that 2023 is going to be another busy year for the Calgary Fire Department. 

It’s a growing city. More people are coming to Calgary. They will be a part of a provincial task force in managing the homeless, addictions and mental health supports.

For the first time in a while, they’re going to see more substantial investment in helping deal with that growth.

They’re going to staff up their aerial units. They’re going to put a Medical Response Unit on the road. There’s also more training for staff. Firefighters have peace of mind they’re covered if they need to be off.

That brings a certain optimism, Chief Dongworth said.

“We’ve been asking for a while for greater investment. We see it as being necessary, vital to continue to help us to support our community,” he said.

“So, there’s a lot of excitement around that as well.

“The morale is good in terms of, they’re going to see the help that we felt we’ve needed for a number of years now, is coming starting in 2023.”