Loss of position not acceptable: firefighters

A decision made Monday by Fort Frances town council to eliminate a full-time firefighting position vacant since a retirement in March has ignited concern amongst current fire hall staffers.
The Fort Frances Professional Fire Fighters Association yesterday expressed its fear the move would have a negative impact on both its membership and the general public.
“I don’t see any valid reason for reducing numbers . . . It’s an issue of having enough people to be able to ensure what you do you are doing safely and efficiently.” said Frank Sheppard, the president of the local bargaining group which represents Fort Frances’ nine-full-time firefighters. The group does not represent Fire Chief Steve Richardson.
Sheppard added the existing fire hall staff has been logging “a lot of overtime” since William “Hugh” McKinnon, a veteran of 20-plus years of service, retired two months ago.
Sheppard, who has nearly 20 years of firefighting experience under his own belt, expressed disappointment not only with the decision that was made, but also with the way council dealt with the issue.
The discussion on the matter was held in-camera before a resolution brought forth in the regular council meeting was passed without further talks and with only Coun. Struchan Gilson opposed.
“I can’t help but feel the council is attempting to do this without the public’s knowledge,” Sheppard said. “It seems to be a little bit unethical and certainly unfair as far as what the public concern could be if it’s done in this matter.
“They made this decision arbitrarily without any input from us or the public,” he added.
Town CAO Mark McCaig confirmed yesterday that a resolution passed at Monday’s meeting “downsized” the local fire department by eliminating a position vacated when one firefighter retired earlier this year.
“[Monday] night, council voted to reduce the full-time complement by one full-time firefighter from 10 to nine,” McCaig said, adding town staff, including Chief Richardson, had been examining the issue for “a number of months.”
McCaig also defended the nature in which the issue was dealt with by council.
“It happened at a senior managerial level, and at a council level, which I think is appropriate,” he said.
Municipal clerk Glenn Treftlin explained that the Municipal Act of 2001 gives council the option of moving in-camera to discuss any “labour relations or employee relations” matter, as they chose to do Monday.
According to McCaig, no “identifiable reduction in levels of community service” will result from Monday’s decision.
But Sheppard finds that hard to believe.
“I don’t see how they can make this (position) cut without cutting service,” he said. “To suggest you’re going to make that cut without reduction of service is a little naive.
“You can’t lose 25 or 26 years of experience and not have it affect you,” noted Sheppard.
Monday’s in-camera debate was certainly not the first time Fort Frances council members have been asked to look into possibly downsizing the firefighting squad.
Gilson, who was elected to a third term in 2003, said he has dealt with the matter of fire hall staffing with all three councils he has been a part of and that it is always a “very divisive issue.”
The only council member to vote against the motion passed Monday, Gilson said he couldn’t speak about the details of the issue because it was discussed in-camera, but that he did not support the idea of reducing the size of the fire department at this time.
“What I can say is that I made my decision based on what I felt was right,” Gilson said. “I believe that, from the information I have, the way we have it now is the best way to leave it.”
Sheppard, too, would have prefered if things were left as they were before McKinnon retired two months ago. And he fears council might not be finished cutting positions just yet.
“Where are they gonna stop?” he asked. “I really wonder if this is about service or if this is about money?”
Sheppard added that anytime positions are eliminated, others staffers are bound to wonder about their own job security.
“It certainly affects your moral,” he said. “You certainly don’t feel very appreciated.
“You feel more like (council members) don’t understand what we do or that they don’t value what we do.”
McCaig said he assured firefighters when he met with them yesterday that their jobs were safe. Further, he stressed that no jobs were lost as a result of council’s decision.
When asked if fire hall staff could again be reduced, McCaig responded: “Not at this point, no.”
He didn’t, however, rule out the possibility of further reductions at some point in the future.
“Through atrition, we could look at possibly another reduction,” he said.
Mayor Dan Onichuk could not be reached for comment.