Local firefighters rail against job loss But council offers no answers

Backed by at least 50 members of the community, local firefighters made their case Tuesday evening as to why town council should reverse its decision to eliminate a vacant full-time position at the fire hall.
But in the end, they got few answers as to why council ever made the decision in the first place.
“I honestly don’t know any more tonight than I did at the start of the evening,” Frank Sheppard, president of the Fort Frances Professional Fire Fighters Association, said outside the Civic Centre following the council meeting, which was delayed one night due to the Victoria Day holiday.
“I’m still very disappointed,” he added. “If they have a better idea of how to operate, I would support what their actions are.
“But the simple fact of the matter is everyone I talk to, even [Fort Frances CEO] Mark McCaig, identified the fact the fire chief doesn’t agree with them,” Sheppard noted.
“All I can say is there are questions that need to be answered, and they [council] don’t seem to be forthcoming with information,” he remarked. “It’s going to come down to a protracted process.
“We’ll keep at them until we either get answers or they change their mind.”
“I expect we’ll be hearing something from council in the future,” Bruce Roth, president of the Fort Frances Volunteer Fire Fighters, said after the meeting.
“But it would have been nice to have been approached beforehand for some suggestions. These are the people who know the service best,” he added, motioning to the fire hall behind him.
Sheppard addressed council during its regular meeting Tuesday night, stressing his “disappointment in council” for making “this move in secrecy without due consideration for the stakeholders.”
“During budget deliberations last year, one commitment we received from council was that there would be consultation prior to any changes in department structure.
“As of this time, there has been no consultation with our bargaining unit, the volunteer group, or the public—all of which will be negatively affected by this move,” he charged.
Sheppard also said the motion to downsize the fire department was out of order and in “direct contradiction” to town Bylaw 12/02 Appendix B, which states fire department staffing must be at one chief, four captains, six firefighters, and 20 volunteers.
Furthermore, he noted reduction in staffing inevitably would mean at some point that one person would be working a shift alone, effectively increasing response time by a minimum of four minutes—a delay that “changes our fire attack from offensive to defensive stance, increases fire loss, and puts lives at risk.”
The loss of staff also could mean a loss of programs in public education, prevention, and inspection—mandatory components of the Fire Protection and Prevention Act—while possibly raising insurance rates for local property owners.
As well, other areas the local fire department is responsible for—like water rescue, vehicular extrication, confined space work, limited hazardous material response, emergency management duties, tiered response, and first response for medical emergencies—would suffer.
“I would ask that you reconsider your action and hire a firefighter to replace William McKinnon,” said Sheppard. “There is no shame in being wrong, but there is in foolishness that endangers the lives of those you’re sworn to protect.
“Our system works,” he stressed. “The public has told you; your fire chief has told you, your professional firefighters have told you; the volunteers have told you; and history has told you.
“Why are you not listening and why do you seem to want to destroy a system that works when there does not appear to be any rational reason for doing so?” Sheppard asked.
“The negative effects of a staff reduction will soon outweigh whatever the perceived benefits of this move are,” he argued. “That fact it has been done in secrecy is reprehensible.”
Roth also stepped up to the mic, echoing to council that any reduction in full-time staffing would have a negative impact on service.
He also stressed volunteers on the force need the experience of full-time firefighters behind them, and that “there’s a large difference in what a volunteer firefighter does compared to a full-time [one].”
Roth said due to a lack of training, and the lack of time to ever commit to intensive training, volunteer firefighters can’t do many of the duties outlined by Sheppard, such as medical first response.
He added it takes 8,000 hours on the job to be considered a fully-qualified firefighter—an amount of time it would take most volunteers 13 years to achieve.
Roth concluded that council should reverse its decision from the May 9 meeting and fill the vacancy left by McKinnon.
Both Sheppard and Roth received applause from the crowd of firefighters, paramedics, and the general public at the Civic Centre. But council itself had little to say in response to their statements.
“We will take a look at this. We will respond to it accordingly,” Mayor Dan Onichuk said after the delegations had spoken.
He also clarified that, contrary to some public misconceptions, town council has no intention of having a wholly volunteer fire department here anytime in the future.
Coun. Rick Wiedenhoeft, who stressed he was strictly speaking on his own behalf and not council’s, said he has great respect for firefighters and what they do, and would love to “have a full-time complement of 24 firefighters” on staff.
“But I, as an elected official, have a fiduciary obligation to the taxpayers of this municipality to deliver the best possible service at the best possible price,” he noted.
“This philosophy holds true to each and every service we provide for the citizens of Fort Frances. Therein lies the quandary.
“I have been told on more than one occasion by a member of our managerial staff [Community Services manager George Bell], who knows more about fire departments in this province than I, that we, the Town of Fort Frances, have the ‘Cadillac’ version of fire departments,” added Coun. Wiedenhoeft.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with a Cadillac, but we must examine, as we do with all departments, this Cadillac in the light of today’s economic reality.”
Coun. Wiedenhoeft said the cost of running the local fire department is in the top eight percent in the province. And while the median annual operating cost of a fire department in Ontario is $1.13 for every $1,000 worth of assessment in the community, the cost in Fort Frances is $2.71.
He also noted he’s obligated to look at keeping town costs down for the sake of the taxpayers. For instance, residential taxpayers in Fort Frances have seen tax increases totalling 14 percent in the past two years.
In addition, taxpayers will see their sewer and water rates hiked every year, “up to and including the year 2014,” to pay for provincially-mandated maintenance and upgrades to the town’s infrastructure.
That said, Coun. Wiedenhoeft noted he would never support a reduction in full-time firefighters here unless he was assured two conditions had been met: no full-time firefighters would be laid off and the safety of firefighters and the community would not be comprised by said reduction.
He added it is imperative the town now build a large pool of volunteers to fight fires alongside full-timers, and strive to reach a target goal of 24, which represents the three-to-one ratio recommended by the province.
“The training is lengthy, demanding, and ongoing, so we cannot do this overnight,” Coun. Wiedenhoeft admitted. “But before we make any further reductions through attrition—possibly in 2007—to our full-time firefighters, we must have a sufficient, well-trained pool of paid volunteers.
“The safety of this community and its firefighters—full-time and volunteer—must be preserved and protected,” he stressed.
Coun. Wiedenhoeft noted that, despite what some may have said, the town is not working toward a stand-alone volunteer fire department. “It’s not come up in discussion, and as far as I’m concerned will never come up for discussion,” he said.
Coun. Wiedenhoeft also publicly made a pledge.
“As long as I remain on council or a resident in this community, I will fight against any further reductions to our full-time firefighters after the potential 2007 retirement,” he said.
“Eight full-time firefighters is my bottom line. If hard economic times continue to pressure service cuts in this town, we must look elsewhere.”
“I appreciate what Coun. Wiedenhoeft had to say for us and the job that we do,” Roth said after Tuesday night’s meeting. “Most of us are dedicated. But especially for us volunteers, that dedication can only go so far.
“I, myself, have a full-time job. I work 42 hours a week on average, shift-work, and I’m just not always available,” he noted. “That’s the same story with all of us. We have trouble retaining volunteers, let alone getting more.
“It’d be great to have more volunteers, but I don’t think that’s the reality,” Roth remarked. “The reality is to keep that fire hall fully-staffed.
“We feel safer, we are more competent, and we can respond better with the full-time firefighters by our side. The key word is ‘competence.’
“It’s like the OPP Auxiliary—they play an important role to the police service, but I don’t think any taxpayers in this town would want to rely solely on the auxiliary,” Roth argued.
“You’d want full-time professional police officers, too.”
As previously reported, council voted 6-1 at its May 9 meeting 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 McKinnon back in March.