Debate over firefighter’s job heats up

The void created by last week’s decision by town council to reduce the full-time complement at the Fort Frances Fire Department by one will be filled by a bolstered volunteer corps, Mayor Dan Onichuk said yesterday.
Mayor Onichuk noted the town soon will launch an advertising campaign to recruit at least five more volunteer firefighters—but ideally about twice that number—within the next year.
“I would much prefer, as mayor and as a citizen, to have five more volunteers than one full-time [firefighter] because then there are five more people at a fire,” he remarked.
“More bodies is more advantageous.”
The volunteer corps already provide most of the manpower at a fire or other emergency, he added.
But Wayne Roth, president of the Fort Frances Volunteer Fire Fighters, is worried that anticipating a handful of new firefighters will sign up for duty might be wishful thinking.
“We have a hard enough time retaining the part-time people because everyone is squashed for time these days,” said Roth, adding not everyone is cut out for this type of commitment.
“It takes a certain personality to walk into a burning building and not everyone can do it,” he noted.
“I don’t think [adding volunteers] is going to be a solution,” he added. “It’s going to cost so much to save so little.
“We’ve got a great thing. It’s working, why break it?”
Roth, who joined the local volunteer corps in 1997, is the latest to voice his displeasure with last week’s controversial decision.
At its May 9 meeting, council voted in favour of reducing the full-time complement at the fire hall from 10 to nine by eliminating a position that had been vacant since the retirement of veteran firefighter William “Hugh” McKinnon back in March.
The following day, Frank Sheppard, president of the bargaining group that represents the full-time firefighters, expressed concern the decision would have an adverse impact on both the local firefighting unit and the residents they are paid to protect.
“I don’t see any valid reason for reducing numbers,” Sheppard told the Times last Tuesday (May 10). “It’s an issue of having enough people to be able to ensure what you do you are doing safely and efficiently.”
Sheppard also was disappointed with how council handled the issue. The matter first was discussed in-camera before a resolution was passed 6-1 at the May 9 meeting (only Coun. Struchan Gilson was opposed) without further debate.
Greg Allan, speaking yesterday on behalf of the local Fire Fighters Association, said the bargaining unit still has a number of unanswered questions.
“It really hasn’t changed,” he said. “We’re patiently waiting to hear from council as to the reasons for the proposed cutback.”
The fire brigade, which comprises both the bargaining unit that represents the full-time firefighters and the volunteer group, is requesting the public attend the May 24 council meeting to show their support.
Town clerk Glenn Treftlin confirmed this morning that both the full-time and volunteer firefighters had made an application to speak at that meeting, and said both would be on the agenda.
“We want the public to know, and to come out and find out what is happening,” said Roth, adding he and other volunteer firefighters are frustrated they weren’t consulted in the decision-making process.
“This isn’t personal,” he stressed. “We just feel like we’ve been treated unfairly. . . . We feel like we’re running out of options to be heard.”
The local brigade also is circulating a petition to garner public support. Those who sign “oppose any actions by town council that would undermine the efforts of our local fire and rescue services,” the petition reads.
It will be presented to council at a later date.
Mayor Onichuk said it is possible for council to “revisit” any decisions it has made in the past, but noted they certainly didn’t rush the decision to reduce full-time fire hall staffing and increase the volunteer complement.
“This isn’t a decision that was made in the last week or so. This was a decision that was made a year-and-a-half ago [during 2004 budget deliberations],” he noted, stressing the position was eliminated through attrition so no jobs were lost.
But Roth said council shouldn’t underestimate the importance of having an extra full-time firefighter at the scene of a blaze.
The volunteer corps undergo about 40 hours of introductory training and then only train for an average of about four hours each month, so they rely on the full-time complement to provide guidance and expertise.
“I’m going on nine years and just now I’m feeling comfortable doing anything they ask of me,” Roth said.
“We try to follow their lead,” added Ray Herbert, who joined the volunteer firefighting squad in 1997. “It’s the full-time firefighters’ job to be prepared, to know everything, to have [the equipment] ready for us.”
Herbert also said recent cutback at the fire hall hasn’t exactly done wonders for the morale of those who offer their time and services to fight fires and receive very little in return.
“It’s a slap in the face for all of us, not just the full-time guys,” Herbert said.
But Mayor Onichuk said that’s not the case.
“It’s exactly the opposite. We can’t, with nine or 10 firefighters, effectively protect the public in case of fires and emergencies,” he argued. “We have to have volunteers and we need more volunteers so it’s even stronger.
“It’s actually a compliment to the volunteers,” the mayor added.