Volunteer firefighters irked with ‘temporary fix’

It wasn’t the news they were hoping for.
About a dozen volunteer firefighters filed into the Civic Centre on Monday night, only to sit and watch—disappointment etched on their faces—as council defeated a resolution to reconsider its long-term plan to reduce, through attrition, the town’s full-time firefighting complement.
Just moments later, council announced—by way of a prepared statement read by Mayor Dan Onichuk—that the town would hire an additional full-time firefighter on an interim basis only.
The long-term goal still is to reduce the full-time complement to eight, Mayor Onichuk stressed.
As far as the volunteers are concerned, filling the position on an interim basis is not enough.
“We were glad to hear that council decided to fill the vacancy . . . however, the hiring of an interim firefighter is a temporary fix to our long-term concerns about the fire and rescue services,” Paul Danku, a spokesperson for the local volunteer brigade, said shortly after the announcement was made.
For weeks, members of the town’s 20-person volunteer corps have appealed to council to reverse its decision not to fill a full-time position left vacant by a retirement in March, leaving the fire hall with only nine permanent staffers.
Furthermore, they expressed concern about the impact the town’s directive to eventually reduce the full-time complement to eight, plus a fire chief, would have on their membership.
In recent weeks, there had been some optimism council might address the issues they brought forth, especially those raised during an in-camera session two weeks ago.
But that hope quickly vanished Monday night.
“At the meeting [July 25], we asked for answers and were told that council would provide them in two weeks,” Danku said. “Tonight [Monday], we feel disappointed that our concerns were not mentioned.”
In Monday night’s statement, Mayor Onichuk said the move to cut staffing at the fire hall was a tough decision, but added it was the responsibility of town council and administration to monitor the municipal budget and identify possible areas for cost-saving.
“One of the most difficult tasks in municipal governance is to ensure that the town is managed in a fiscally prudent manor,” the mayor remarked. “Sometimes that means making difficult decisions.
“We realize that the change is difficult,” he added. “[But] these tough decisions are necessary if we want to continue to provide prudent management of the services this municipality offers.”
While the town has made clear its intention to eventually fill the void created by the elimination of full-time positions by bolstering the size of the volunteer brigade, the addition of an interim full-time firefighter should help alleviate some of the pressure on the department during the implementation of council’s directive.
“This temporary replacement will allow the fire chief and staff to solidify our implementation strategy, and also allow for more consultation with the volunteers and the full-time alike to determine the best way to attain our goal of reaching a staffing level of eight,” Mayor Onichuk said.
In an interview Tuesday, Fire Chief Steve Richardson, who has maintained since day one that leaving the full-time complement at 10 was his preferred option, said that as is the case in any business, the elimination of a full-time position will result in some changes to the level of service provided.
But Chief Richardson promised his crews would work to maintain the highest levels of service possible. “We’ll strive to have as minimal an impact as possible,” he vowed.
Since March, firefighters have been taking on overtime hours to fill the scheduling void created by the departure of longtime Capt. William “Hugh” McKinnon.
The extra shifts won’t be necessary once an interim staffer is brought on board, bringing the full-time complement back to 10, but scheduling changes will be necessary when that number eventually is reduced to eight, Chief Richardson noted.
“Once we get down to the staffing level of eight, every time that there is a firefighter off on sick-time or on vacation, it will leave one person on shift,” he noted Tuesday.
“At times that there is only one firefighter on duty, there could be some delays,” he warned.
Just when the full-time complement will be reduced to eight, leaving the possibility of having only one crew member on duty at some times, has yet to be determined.
Council has promised all staffing cuts will be done through attrition, so nobody is in danger of losing their job.
However, the same can’t be said for whoever fills the interim position as the length of that position remains up in the air.
The interim opening was posted internally Tuesday afternoon, meaning existing members of the volunteer brigade will have the first shot at getting the job.
“I would like to see one of the volunteers in that position,” Chief Richardson said. “Our volunteers are trained and familiar with the system.”
Chief Richardson added he would like to have his newest full-time staffer on the schedule by the beginning of next month. Volunteers have until Aug. 19 to submit their applications.
Meanwhile, Chief Richardson met earlier this week with Brian Hagarty, the town’s interim human resources manager, to pour over the applications turned in for three positions available on the volunteer corps.
The town called for applications last month in hopes of increasing the size of the volunteer group from 20 to 23.
“We have reviewed the applications and I’m hoping to be getting in touch with them later this week [to set up interviews],” Chief Richardson said. “I’m hoping to have a lot of the process wrapped up in the next couple of weeks.”
Council reiterated again Monday the importance of bolstering the volunteer brigade as part of implementing the change.
“This change will impact the way in which the fire department operates,” Mayor Onichuk said, reading from the release. “It will result in a continuation of the reliance on the volunteer firefighters to assist in the suppression of fires.
“It may increase the role they play in this department and as such, we will have to strengthen and support the training and education our volunteers receive,” he added.