Surrey Fire Chief Larry Thomas. (Photo: Surrey Fire Service)


Surrey Fire Chief reveals the challenges firefighters are facing during COVID-19 crisis

Surrey Fire Chief Larry Thomas opens up in a Q&A with the Now-Leader

Surrey’s fire department is feeling the strain – as is everyone else – on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this week the Surrey Fire Fighters Association “sounded the alarm” about four trucks being temporarily out of service in North Surrey “due to budget constraints.”

“Surrey deserves better,” the association says.

Surrey Fire Chief Larry Thomas told the Now-Leader in Dec. 2019 that the department wanted to hire eight more firefighters for 2020 but “just like all other departments in the city, there were no additional resources approved.

“We did make our request, we did agree to delay it a year like everybody else in the city did, so council’s aware that we do need more resources as the population grows and workload will increase,” Thomas told us then. “This is not a rejection by council; it wasn’t a ‘no’ to our request, it was just a delay. I feel pretty comfortable it should get addressed in the next budget cycle.”

“For this year, it’s just the way the budget went,” Thomas said. “We didn’t get additional resources but I believe our staff are really engaged. I know they were hoping to get more resources this year but they will continue to do a good job.”

Thomas said that “as far as impacts go, the biggest impact will be on the staff. They’re going to get more workload and as workload increases with population growth, they’re going to feel the brunt of that with increased workload until we get additional resources approved.”

He also noted there “are known pressures, we’re willing to delay our request, but we can’t delay it for long. It’s not sustainable.”

That was nearly four months ago. And nobody would disagree, a lot have changed in the world since then. Today, Thomas says the Surrey Fire Service’s major challenge is not because of the budget city hall laid out for 2020, but rather the outfall from COVID-19, under which everyone is struggling. He set out to reassure residents, in an exclusive interview with reporter Tom Zytaruk on Thursday, that if anyone calls on the firefighters for help, “We’re there.”

Zytaruk: You’re saying this doesn’t have anything to do with budget constraints?

Thomas: No, not at all, not at all. We’re experiencing extremely high shortages of staff, way over double what we’d normally have.

Zytaruk: Is it because of this virus?

Thomas: Yeah, there’s lots of travel isolations, contact isolations and symptom-related isolations.

Zytaruk: So it’s not a matter of trucks being the problem, it’s a matter of manpower at the moment?

Thomas: Totally. 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 how many call-ins we get. It’s been all over the place. We’ve been full, like for two day shifts in a row we’re full, one out on a night, and the next day there might be two out, and then one out, it’s just really dependent on the number of staff that are calling in, not being able to come into work because they have any kind of symptoms, or they travelled. 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.

Zytaruk: OK…

Thomas: We also have developed a business continuity and contingency plan for this type of event, so you know we have lots of tools in out toolbox to maintain minimum levels, if it gets worse. One of the things we’re doing is we’re advancing the hire dates, start dates for our 2020 recruit class, so about three weeks from now we’ll be bringing another 15 firefighters on board to help with some relief with this staffing crunch.

Zytaruk: Do you have any staff, firefighters or staff, where it’s actually been established that they have the Coronavirus?

Thomas: We do.

Zytaruk: How many?

Thomas: It’s a low number at this point, but I really don’t want to create stigma around it. The person’s totally healthy, I’ve had a talk with them, they had a confirmed case, they were isolating before they got diagnosed and before they showed any symptoms, it was very minor.

Zytaruk: OK, only one person then?

Thomas: Only one person I’ve talked to. But like I said, we have lots of people in isolation. They’re not testing people now unless you need hospitalization so really don’t have a good idea. People that have symptoms need to stay off work until they’re symptom free.

Zytaruk: Back in December you were saying you didn’t get your eight firefighters like you asked but you knew it was a temporary thing. You said people who would be feeling it the most would be the firefighters so I guess you’re already coming into this Coronavirus situation not flush with…

Thomas: Our requests were for additions for staff to add another truck and that’s what was delayed, so we are hiring to maintain all the trucks that we have, so the service level is the same as it was last year as it is this year, and this unprecedented spike in absenteeism related to COVID is creating us some temporary challenges, but I do know that we have about a dozen people that are in travel isolation that will be coming back into the system over the next several days, so we’re just starting to hit that – the start of the end of the two-week period when the government announced that more specific travel ban and people had to come back, so we’re in the middle of that window now, so we do expect that there’s going to be some relief coming to this short-term crisis for trucks going out.

Zytaruk: What about the Surrey Fire Firefighters Association saying that staffing is at the same level as 1990?

Thomas: I don’t really understand what they were saying. In 1990 I was working then, we only had six fire halls in all of Surrey, and we have 15 now.

Zytaruk: So it’s a way bigger department than it was in 1990…

Thomas: Oh my goodness, yeah. Totally.

Zytaruk: I guess the bottom line is people are going to be wondering if there’s been any instances of safety being compromised, crews not getting to a fire in time to…

Thomas: Yeah, that’s not the case. Like I said, we maintain staff at all of our halls for fire protection, fire response, and our crews are doing a great job. We’re still getting to those areas within our time criteria and the crews are doing a good job, so nothing’s being missed at this time. Our staffing plan focuses this on making sure we have, keep as many staff healthy, that we don’t burn them out over the short term with this initial spike. We want to keep some gas in the tank, so to speak, because we do believe this is more like a marathon, and it’s going to be several weeks and months. I know the union said that they’ve got lots of members willing to work, and I think that’s great. It’s a good sign how everyone’s rallying together in the fire department to make sure we deliver our service and don’t drop below any minimums.


Surrey firefighters heading out on a call. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)

Zytaruk: So do you know how many staff you’re short at the moment?

Thomas: I think it would be fair to say that we’re about 87 per cent of normal.

Zytaruk: Weathering the storm?

Thomas: Exactly. And I’m sure other fire departments are facing similar shortages, They may be doing things different in terms of how they’re keeping their trucks going, I’m not sure. Everyone’s going to have different depth and different resource levels and so our strategy is to be here for the long term and not burn out our people. I do care about their wellness and their work-life balance and if we had too many people working continuously, robbing from one shift of off-duty firefighters to fill the current shift, sooner or later you get to that third or fourth shift and there’s not enough firefighters to maintain minimum staffing. So we’ve set our levels and thresholds to make sure we can maintain our threshold that’s acceptable, and that’s what we’re doing. I totally understand that it creates angst for the union members when they see a truck temporarily go out of service but we’re confident that with the things that we’re doing, advancing the hiring, and with the travel isolations coming back, we’re going to get back up to more normal operations and then hopefully we don’t get more people off sick.

Zytaruk: If it gets worse, has the mayor given any assurances they’re going to pitch in to help you guys?

Thomas: This isn’t about budget at all and we’re operating, I’m operating with what I see best. So we’re over double the number of back-fill shifts we normally do and we will increase that when the time is right, to maintain minimum staffing. But it’s a long game, not a short game.

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

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