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'It's disappointing': Push to study merging York Region fire departments flames out

Councillors in King, Markham and Vaughan doused merger while Richmond Hill, Stouffville, Georgina and Aurora support it
May 11, 2020
Adam Martin-Robbins

The latest bid to explore merging York Region's eight local fire departments into a single, regional one has gone up in smoke.

While Richmond Hill, Stouffville, Georgina and Aurora councils have all voiced support for studying the costs and benefits of such a move, a majority of councillors in Vaughan, Markham and King have thrown cold water on the idea at local meetings held during the past few weeks.

And so, with that, the conversation sparked by Aurora Mayor Tom Mrakas in January has been snuffed out.

Proceeding with a study of a regional fire service requires what’s called a triple majority -- support of the majority of regional council and a majority of local councils representing a majority of electors (eligible voters who were on the voters list at end of the last election).

The lack of support by councillors in Markham, Vaughan and King has burned any chance of achieving a triple majority as just Vaughan and Markham councils combined represent more than half the 721,000 eligible voters in the region.

"It's disappointing they didn't even want to look at what it would look like," Mrakas said in an interview May 6, the morning after Aurora councillors unanimously endorsed the idea at a general committee meeting.

Mrakas said his goal in proposing a study was to explore the possibility of finding "efficiencies."

"I think that's our duty as elected officials," he said.

Vaughan and Markham councillors cited several reasons for rejecting a study of amalgamation, including that it would be costly; it's been studied and rejected multiple times already and it would largely benefits York's smaller, northern municipalities.

York Region currently has eight fire departments -- East Gwillimbury, Georgina, King, Markham, Newmarket, Richmond Hill, Vaughan, Whitchurch-Stouffville and Central York, which serves Aurora and Newmarket.   
The idea of amalgamating them to form one regional department, similar to what exists with York Regional Police and York paramedics, has been tossed around several times during the last three decades.

Fatal house fire

The effectiveness of fire delivery services in East Gwillimbury was questioned following a fatal fire that killed four members of the Dunsmuir family on Good Friday in 2013. | Torstar file photo
The last big push came in early 2013 when several firefighters’ unions appealed to their local councils to support a regional department, but local politicians took no action.

The effectiveness of fire service delivery in East Gwillimbury was questioned following a fatal fire that killed four members of the Dunsmuir family on Good Friday in 2013.

It took the town's volunteer firefighters 12 and a half minutes to reach the family’s home in Sharon, Ont. just north of Newmarket.

Mrakas said, while the idea of creating a regional fire department has been rejected in the past, he thought "there was more of an appetite to look at it (now)."

Even though the idea has gone up in smoke, that doesn't mean there won't be greater co-operation or even integration among some local departments down the road.

Vaughan Fire Chief Deryn Rizzi told councillors at an April 21 meeting that the city has had initial discussions with Markham and Richmond Hill about opportunities for joint purchasing, joint training and a combined communication centre.

And, Mrakas pointed out, Central York Fire Services previously had discussions with Stouffville about exploring opportunities for consolidation.

It's possible, now, that those discussions will be reignited, he said.

"We'll see what happens."