Mississauga Fire gets critical investments to replace infrastructure neglected for decades
Dilapidated fire halls dating back to the early ‘70s, poor response times dangerously above the national standard and only half the number of stations needed in Mississauga. The City’s fire union hopes this pattern of neglect is finally being disrupted as enhanced investments in the 2024 budget reflect a turning point that began when the current chief was hired to transform the department.
For decades Mississauga Fire and Emergency Services (MFES) has been facing infrastructure pressures caused by years of financial mismanagement as some buildings were left to decay into a state of disrepair. Years of strict budgets kept property taxes frozen and critical infrastructure investments off the table as the city’s elected officials turned a blind eye to the starved fire department.
Now, despite external pressures such as the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to support the PC government’s ambitious but poorly thought out housing policy, senior staff and council members are finally paying attention to a department that was dangerously under-funded for decades.
The latest investments are detailed within the pages of the City’s 2024 financial blueprint, which provides a more positive outlook for the department than in previous years. It notes capital investments are required for the purchase of new equipment and the refurbishment of existing equipment. The City has laid out $29.8 million in spending for MFES to help meet the department’s long-term infrastructure plan — an increase of $2.5 million over the 2023 budget to address critical infrastructure improvements. Of that amount, $24.6 million is for the department’s fire stations and auxiliary buildings. An additional $5.25 million is allotted for vehicles and equipment.
“The capital budget costs include fire station renovations, new fire infrastructure, vehicle replacement, new and replacement equipment, as well as personal protective equipment — all of which are important to ensure reliable and effective service,” Mississauga Fire Chief Deryn Rizzi told councillors during budget presentations in November.
The budget states MFES plans to focus on decreasing emergency response times by investing in new fire station infrastructure, developing and executing a rigorous lifecycle replacement plan for fire fleet and equipment, and investing in the training of emergency services staff. Among the key projects for 2024 that will require additional operation spending for Mississauga is the opening of a new fire station in Ward 9 at a cost of $2.2 million to fund the 20 employees required to service it. Councillors passed a 2.3 percent increase on Mississauga’s share of the overall 2024 tax bill for residential property owners to help fund the costs needed to get critical projects and renovations underway. Combined with the Region of Peel’s increase, Mississauga’s homeowners will pay an additional 6.8 percent in the coming year.
With increased investments in the 2024 budget compared to prior years, fire union president Chris Varcoe, who has been sounding the alarm for more funding, says the department is pleased to see the City finally making critical investments in Mississauga’s fire department, which will help keep residents and frontline staff safe.
“Finally, there's an improvement to the capital expenditure line,” Varcoe told The Pointer. “The plans are well underway for the construction and the renovations for a lot of our stations that are in very, very sad state of repair.”
“It's going to take a long time. I'm never happy with the pace,” he added. “This problem was identified three, four or five years ago when it finally went public and we're just getting around to the renovations now.”
With increased investments for Mississauga Fire in the City’s 2024 budget, Varcoe says the department is finally getting back on track after years of financial neglect.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
The increased investments come as part of the City’s long-term infrastructure plan to address the recommendations made in a 2019 Building Condition Audit, which revealed MFES’s infrastructure was in a severe state of disrepair. It identified high costs needed to get critical buildings to meet the basic standards for safety, after decades of failing to dedicate sufficient funding toward Mississauga’s aging fire infrastructure.
Varcoe previously pointed out that some of the stations identified in the 2019 audit were being called for back in 2008 and there still aren’t shovels in the ground, noting “it’s painfully slow.” At the time, he warned Mississauga taxpayers would be facing a massive bill as a result of the financial mismanagement going forward, adding “They're not just tasked with trying to build for the future, but they're trying to repair decades of failing to maintain the system.” The Pointer previously reported that between 2006 and October 2019 the service did not open a new station — a more than 15-year hiatus — while, during that same period, the population grew by more than 100,000 residents.
This gap occurred despite Mississauga’s 2010 strategy identifying the need for three separate new stations before 2014 to address inadequate and worsening response times: Station 120 at Hurontario Street and Eglinton Avenue (built in 2019); Station 123 at Burnhamthorpe Road and Winston Churchill Boulevard; and Station 124 at Dundas Street and Cawthra Road. Nearly a decade later, the remaining two stations identified in the 2010 master plan, which still have not been built, were finally featured in the pages of the 2023 budget requests. Rizzi told councillors during 2024 budget deliberations in November that stations 123 and 124 are currently in the design process as part of the department’s program to improve response times across the city.
“These are stations that were identified, in some instances, two decades ago that were required,” Varcoe noted. “Some of them will be arriving close to 30 years late, so where will we be when we're done building these ones? Where will we be in 2031? I suspect we're still going to be behind, hopefully just not as far behind.”
“[It’s] a monumental task for the city manager and for this chief, because they're stuck with trying to meet the demands of growth for tomorrow. They’re trying to clean up the mess left by previous councils and previous administrations to get up to standard and it's a huge, huge undertaking.”
Rizzi noted renovations for Stations 102 Lakeview and 108 Streetsville (approved in the 2022 budget) are currently under construction. Station 125 — Mississauga Fire’s first net zero station — located at Tenth Line and Aquitaine Avenue, is scheduled to open in 2024 and will put the City’s fire station count at 22, servicing the Meadowvale area. As part of the 2024 budget, staff are planning for five new initiatives, which include 20 new full-time employees to staff Station 125, anticipated to be completed in 2024, three new staff for the department’s fire inspection program (an ongoing multi-year initiative), and a division chief. The department’s 10-year capital program includes the design and construction of the six new fire stations, three of which were included as part of the City’s 2023 budget, and the land purchases for two of them — stations 127, located at Lorne Park and 128, located in the North Lakeview area.
“I've learned it’s a very long and bureaucratic red tape process where it takes a stunning amount of time to even get the necessary approvals to renovate a fire station, which is bizarre because it's a department of the City,” Varcoe explained. “But we're moving and we're very, very pleased to see that the dollars are starting to finally flow to fix stuff that is two, three, even four decades behind being done.”
Mississauga Fire Chief Deryn Rizzi has assured council the department is on track to build the six stations required by 2031 as identified in the 2019 Master Plan.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
The last two budget documents have shown signs of improvement, with the City making more tangible investments into its service to improve critical infrastructure that was left to decay and lagging response times that sit well below national standards.
The first sign of improved investments was showcased in the 2023 budget when key objectives laid out for the next four years included decreasing emergency response times by investing in new fire station infrastructure, along with developing a strict replacement plan for the fire fleet and equipment.
To address the City’s slow response times, MFES previously committed to building six fire stations over a 12-year horizon as part of Mississauga’s 2019 Fire Master Plan. For a city its size, and to meet national safety standards for fire-response times, Mississauga should have about 44 stations. It currently has 21 with the opening of Station 125 in 2024 bringing that number to 22. Of the City’s current fire stations, staff have acknowledged there are 17 that require renovation, 13 of which were built more than 30 years ago. Rizzi has assured the renovations of these stations, which require interior renovations and structural additions, will be completed over the 12-year period.
Despite the increased investments, the union president is skeptical the City will meet the target set out in its 2019 Fire Master Plan to complete six stations over the remaining eight years. Varcoe told The Pointer achieving the goals set out in the 2019 Fire Master Plan will be “awfully ambitious.” He previously cautioned that as a snapshot in time, the investments being made were heading in the right direction, but with a 15-year-plus delay on getting stations built, Mississauga will be playing catch-up for decades to come.
“A lot of these stations by the time they run out their first call will be close to 30 years since they've been called for in a master plan. So where will we be as a city, as a population in 2030? We can project all we want but with the moving targets at the provincial level and with a push to intensify and increase density in certain areas, we might have to reexamine it.”
“We could still be well behind in 2030. But the longest journey starts from a single step. So we're on our way.”
As the City puts more investments into its aging infrastructure, the department has not been meeting the travel time expectations lowered by the City. Despite the department taking strides to improve response times, the percentage of time the first arriving truck met the travel time target (240 seconds or less, 75 percent of the time), according to the 2024 budget, was achieved an estimated 45 percent in 2023, a decrease from 47 percent in 2022 and 50 percent in 2021 — levels that far exceed the national standard of 383 seconds 90 percent of the time. The 2024 plan estimates the department will meet the travel time 47 percent of the time.
Rizzi told councillors during the City’s 2023 budget deliberations earlier this year that “travel time is the largest component of our total response, and it's the most difficult to control in a growing municipality,” adding that “with significant urban intensification, the biggest factor impacting our response is traffic congestion.” She noted the appropriate distribution of fire stations is the best way to improve response times.
“We simply need more trucks located around so that we can try to get even somewhere close to the response times,” Varcoe explained, noting the response times the department is working towards are the artificial times lowered by council for Mississauga Fire. “Council artificially lowered their response times a number of years ago and we're not hitting those either. So we can't even hit the made-up ones.”
“I know they're working on different things to try to do, but the reality is we need more stations and we've needed them for decades,” he added. “At least that is now underway. But we're going to be years before we see a change in that area because it's going to be the better part of a decade until these stations are built and running fire trucks out of.”
The Chief has made no secret of how the PCs heavy-handed decision-making has altered planning for the fire service to reduce these response times. With Minsters Zoning Order approvals popping up in community developments like Lakeview Village, where the Province doubled the proposed development in size from 8,000 to 16,000 units, effectively doubling the expected population from 20,000 to 40,000 residents earlier this year. Rizzi previously told council it's becoming increasingly challenging to plan for the department’s future and the growth of the city when planning is constantly being overridden by the provincial government.
“We have identified areas within the city where service needs to change or be augmented to support growth plans. We will be continuing to address emergency response times by investing in fire station infrastructure,” she told council in November. She noted the department is assessing new requirements for community development nodes like Port Credit and Lakeview and addressing accelerated growth targets.
Increased density coming down to the City’s waterfront has created added pressures for Mississauga Fire as the department adapts to accommodate the additional growth.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
While Varcoe is commending the City for finally taking a more aggressive approach to fix the funding gaps and dedicate the much-needed investments into the department, there are still gaps in the 2024 budget.
This includes the lack of directing more funding toward staff to support the department’s growth, specifically in the communications division and there seems to be no plan for the “very problematic” division.
“We've been identifying for years that it's a horrible deal for the Mississauga taxpayers. When it comes to the sharing of costs with the City of Brampton, and the Mississauga, taxpayers are essentially getting ripped off with this arrangement and I've been advocating for the deal to be terminated,” he explained. Varcoe noted he’s disappointed to see there’s no strategy in place to address the division yet and get the City’s dispatchers back into Mississauga instead of subsidizing the Region of Peel.
Another area the department is far behind in that continues to be of “grave concern” for the union, Varcoe noted is the number of district chiefs, which he says the department has been short of for years and is desperately in need of. Mississauga Fire has been operating with three district chiefs for roughly two decades, and, for a department of its size, Varcoe argues MFES should have at least four district chiefs, with a fifth to be implemented in the next few years — something that is continuously absent from the budget. Instead, the budget is not proposing a fourth district fire chief until 2027.
“It is way out of control. We’re a ticking time bomb for something to go wrong in that area because they are the command officers that run the major incidents,” he explained. “We today find ourselves in situations where we don't have enough district chiefs to manage the calls that we have and it essentially puts our puts our people in great peril.”
“That's a pretty serious concern, and I've been clear that we're going to continue to advocate to move that up; 2027 is just simply unacceptable.”
As concerns around the number of district chiefs linger, with major projects like Brightwater, the controversial Lakeview Village and the Port Credit Marina flooding down to the City’s waterfront, Varcoe also reaffirmed his previous concern around the need for improvements to the City’s fire protection infrastructure to respond to emergencies on the water, which he previously stressed are virtually non-existent. With the fire department in the business of preparing for the ‘what ifs,’ Varcoe has asserted the City is not prepared when it comes to having a waterfront response, previously warning “I think we're in some serious peril.”
“Here we are the third largest city in Ontario situated on a Great Lake that is constantly trying to promote our marinas and our water activities and we don't have a boat — it's a glaring hole,” he explained. “I was disappointed to see no plan to address it, at least in the two- three-year plan that we were shown in the budget. It's a glaring oversight in our overall plan of being able to provide protection.”
Varcoe noted while the department’s plans look good on paper, in reality, with the close proximity of so many boats in the harbour, and being built with highly flammable materials, Mississauga Fire would be outmatched by the conditions of a potential fire. He previously cautioned “the strategy would be cutting the ropes and pushing the boats into the water to try to push them away from burning the rest of them down.”
With municipalities required to have an approved asset management plan for all municipal infrastructure that identifies current levels of service and the cost of maintaining those levels of service, Rizzi recently told councillors the department’s plan is to implement “a long-range financial plan that will ensure the continued maintenance and improvement of the assets while reducing service disruption risks.” She noted Mississauga Fire will be implementing an inventory management solution for capital assets and support the implementation of a formal asset management program for the department.
Rizzi told The Pointer earlier this year that while the department is working to play “catch up” it cannot overburden the pockets of Mississauga’s residents at a time when so many are struggling with their own immediate costs. She has put a timeline in place, by planning to renovate an existing station every year and build a new one every two years, to reach achievable goals that elected officials should support.
“At least we can say we've now started,” Varcoe said. “It’s going to be a long process. It's going to be a decade-plus getting there and I worry about how far we will be behind when we emerge a decade from now, but at least the process has started and it's no longer just talk.”
“It's actually money and shovels in the ground and relief is coming from a capital budget perspective, that's for sure.”
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