What’s the big secret?

Dear sir:
Attention Fort Frances. Your fire department is being slowly dismantled by our mayor and council. The mayor and council are instituting staffing changes at the fire department that will affect the safety and well-being of this community.
Staffing of full-time firefighters is being reduced for no reason that the mayor and council are willing to state publicly. What is the big secret? It can’t be for fiscal reasons because they will have paid out more in overtime by the end of August then what it would have cost to hire a full-time fourth-class firefighter for a year.
Currently, there are three captains and six firefighters, with one vacancy left open by a retirement. That brings the fire department down to nine full-time personnel.
The mayor and council want to reduce the numbers even further. They have said to eight of which there is no shift schedule for, and then last week at a meeting with the volunteer/part-time firefighters, it was stated to them that there would be no replacements at all for any firefighter who is retiring.
As I understand that comment to mean, the Town of Fort Frances will not be hiring any more full-time firefighters. Sooner than later, the number of full-time firefighters in this town will be zero.
Whenever the mayor and council are asked the question of “How will reduced staffing affect public safety,” the answer they give is that “it won’t affect anything.”
This is, at best, misdirection and half-truths. A reduction in staffing will affect the safety and well-being of this community. It will result in longer response times to calls and a reduction in other services, such as medical calls, education programs in the schools, and inspections and fire safety plans for businesses and institutions.
Currently, the mayor and council are stating that they only want one person on shift at non-peak times, or if someone is off sick or on holidays. Tell me when is there non-peak time when there is a fire. Last time I checked, fires didn’t wait to happen until between 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Normally for a fire call, two trucks will roll to the scene and action will be instituted and expanded as more firefighters (both full-time and part-time) arrive.
Let me ask, with only one firefighter at the hall, how will two trucks roll? Perhaps the mayor and council can come up with a way to have the first truck tow the second truck—or perhaps buy a remote-controlled truck.
A house or business can be fully engulfed in flames in less than 10 minutes. Every second counts. Waiting for someone off-duty to drive to the hall and pick up the second truck and drive to the scene of the fire could take up to 15 minutes.
Would you want your house or business, or the lives of your family and friends, put at risk this way?
Our fire department does much more than just put out fires. They respond to all life-threatening ambulance medical calls. They not only assist paramedics, but lots of times they are the first on the scene and will be so for some time if the ambulance is tied up on another call.
With only one firefighter on shift at the hall, these medical assist calls will not happen. How many of you out there have been assisted and reassured by a firefighter until the ambulance could get there.
Our fire department also responds to highway accident calls for most of the Rainy River District—that is from Highway 11/71 almost to Atikokan and as far north as Nestor Falls and Cedar Narrows Road.
Once again, how many of you in the area have been helped and reassured by both the Fort Frances Fire Department and the corresponding fire department where the accident occurred?
Mayor and council have referred to our fire department as a “Cadillac fire department” as if it was a bad or dirty thing. We may well have a Cadillac fire department and if we do, it is because all of our firefighters have made it so with their hours of dedication and hard work.
Many a meal, family function, and good night’s sleep has been given up by your full-time firefighters who were not on shift to respond to a fire or accident because their pagers have gone off and they have answered their call to duty.
A firefighter is a unique person. They are willing every day to put their lives on the line to save you and your possessions. They will run into a situation when everyone else is fleeing the scene.
Please say thank you to both the full-time and volunteer/part-time firefighters by supporting them in their struggle to maintain fire department staffing levels at 10 full-time fighters, which, by the way, is already one less than four years ago.
Signed,
Veronica LeBlanc
Fort Frances, Ont.

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What’s the big secret?

Let’s see. The new double-rink ice facility going up adjacent to the Sportsplex next year is being funded by public donations–and people’s tax dollars.
So why is it that trying to get information from an arena steering committee meeting is like trying to pull that proverbial tooth?
A good case in point was yesterday, when reporter Jody Miller contacted “Ice for Kids” rep Les Baker to find out if any more decisions had been made at a committee meeting last Thursday.
Now, Les was very friendly and all that, but said he wasn’t allowed to comment, adding that he had gotten “his wrist slapped” for talking to the media when he revealed, in a previous story, that an Olympic-sized rink was to be included in the new arena.
Are we to conclude that this little fact was to be a secret–maybe until the thing was built? And is there anything else being kept under wraps?
This whole thing started when Jody called CAO Bill Naturkach, who chairs the arena committee, to find out what happened at Thursday’s meeting. While Bill could tell her what had gone on at last Tuesday’s meeting, he couldn’t comment on the one two nights later because he had been out of town.
Fine. But Community Services manager George Bell, who was at the meeting, couldn’t be reached for comment yesterday because he was home sick. That’s when Jody tried Les Baker, who replied that he wasn’t allowed to comment.
Bill Naturkach then called back to say he didn’t have any information from Thursday’s meeting because Bell was sick. When asked who could comment, he noted that councillors on the committee were not precluded from speaking on the arena issue to the media.
Okay. But Coun. Sharon Tibbs couldn’t comment because she wasn’t at that meeting, either. And Jody couldn’t reach either Coun. Bill Martin or Coun. Struchan Gilson. She even tried Muskie head coach Glen Edwards, who happened to be out of town yesterday.
Jody then tried Coun. Martin again, who was home by now, but he said nothing was “written in stone” yet stemming from the meeting.
Quite frustrated by now, Jody called Mayor Glenn Witherspoon to find out if he knew what happened at last Thursday’s meeting. He didn’t know anything. She then asked who gave the “gag order” on committee members, which prompted the mayor to respond, “That’s news to me.”
He also said that upset him because this involves a public building and taxpayers’ dollars. He promised to look into the matter.
Well, Jody called Les back to find out who “slapped his wrist” for talking before. He downplayed the incident. But after being told she had contacted the mayor, Mr. Baker agreed to comment, telling her that the pro shop question was referred to council, and that the facility could accommodate both a Muskie dressing room (with no separate entrance) and one for the Border Figure Skating Club.
He also said there would be a room for music and video equipment, probably one for each rink.
What a runaround!
Okay, okay. So the information from Thursday’s meeting wasn’t earth-shattering. But it was still worthy of timely public knowledge–not when the committee gets around to revealing it.
And given the arena already has been plagued by complaints of decisions being made without the taxpaying public, user groups and even some councillors knowing about them (for instance, the “L-shaped” design and Olympic-sized rink, and the fact some people didn’t realize Memorial Arena would be demolished), yesterday’s exercise in futility merely fuels suspicions that major decisions are being made without public scrutiny.
That’s got to change right now. After all, what’s the big secret?
o o o
I’d just like to this opportunity to wish all our readers, advertisers, and contributors (as well as Barb, Steve and Trevor for their thoughtful “award”) a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Thanks for helping make 1997 another great year at the Times.

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