As many readers know, on April 19, a 6-storey wood frame building under construction at 208th Street and 80th Avenue in Yorkson was consumed in one of the largest building fires ever seen in Langley. The impressiveness of the blaze was only matched and overcome by the incredible response of Langley’s firefighters. The outpouring of appreciation towards Langley’s firefighters was extremely well-deserved as they battled throughout the night to save what was probably hundreds of nearby occupied homes from being consumed by the fire. Langley’s firefighters deserve a lot more than just our appreciation. They deserve our political will and taxpayer support to continue keeping us safe.
In the past weeks I’ve spoken to a number of firefighters and, although as professional as ever, I definitely got the understanding that they were stretched pretty thin that night as a result. With only 18 full-time firefighters on duty to cover 316 square kilometers and something like 40,000 households and 135,000 people, we are putting way too much hope that fires like these won’t happen too often and pray that when they do, that nothing else goes wrong. Unfortunately, fires like these have been breaking out in the Langleys and our firefighters tend to a lot more than just fires. They are often the first responders to car accidents, health emergencies, and rescue operations (even including large animals).
It isn’t abnormal for our own fire-fighters to take on additional hours to try to have 18 firefighters on duty. Anytime there are any injuries, sick firefighters or vacations, we drop below “minimum staffing”. It wouldn’t be uncommon to have only 15-16 firefighters on duty with 3 to a truck (instead of the recommended 4). Langley can’t keep relying on part-time on-call firefighters to fill in the gaps. Doing so can keep response times higher than acceptable standards, especially in a community with as much land mass as ours. Anyone who knows a firefighter knows that their lives and the lives of others depend on trusting the competency and experience of the whole team. Delta phased out auxiliary services a decade ago, and both Coquitlam and Surrey appear to be doing the same. This isn’t to say that auxiliary services don’t have value, especially in outlying rural areas, but we simply can’t demand the same expectations on them as we do on full time fighters.
Our ratio of full-time firefighters to our population is falling behind every year with our rapidly growing population base. We have just 88 full-time firefighters to service 135,000+ people. Yet Delta, with a population of 110,000 over 364 square km has 160 firefighters and responds to around 6400 calls annually. Coquitlam, with 150,000 pop over a much smaller 122 sq.km have 154 firefighters and answer about the same as Delta. According to my sources, ToL firefighters respond to around 8,000 calls!
This is absolutely unacceptable. I understand that we have finally got our Development Cost Charge program up to meet infrastructure costs (based on 2019 costs and are probably now already out of date again), but fire service costs are ongoing operational costs paid by the taxpayer, not one time costs borne by the developer. I understand that we have to properly balance how to maintain aging infrastructure with the servicing of growing communities with limited tax dollars, but letting our safety and security services get to the drastically underfunded state that the Township of Langley does is extremely irresponsible.
We have 38 condo complexes under construction in Willoughby alone with 17 of those to complete this year. This more than doubles the number of condo buildings we currently have in Willoughby (not including Willowbrook) in one year! There are another 33 in-stream applications for Willoughby condos on top of that. This doesn’t include the thousands of townhome units under construction as well. Fighting condo fires takes specialized knowledge and equipment as well as quicker response times due to the compact nature of the homes. We need to recognize that we aren’t just a rural community anymore.
If we truly want to support our firefighters, it’s well past the time that we go beyond the banners and donuts. We need to proactively advocate for our firefighters and demand that we stop falling behind. Growth is great, but we need to service that growth in responsible and safe ways.