Money booked in budget to 'recruit, train, retain' firefightersPosted February 12, 2013
New Tecumseth councillors voted 5-4 last night
against the proposed hiring of full-time firefighters in 2013, but were
near unanimous supporting a $197,000 allocation, funded from a
projected year end surplus, to embark on an aggressive campaign to
bolster the number of part-time volunteers.
The compromise was forged following a one hour debate which turned personal at times, including an expletive uttered by Ward 2 councillor Jamie Smith, who termed Ward 8 councillor Jim Stone's support of New Tecumseth Fire Chief Dan Heydon, as "bullshit."
"It's not bullshit," replied Mr, Stone, who took exception at different times to suggestions his 42 years as a fire chief in Tottenham, did not compare with the realities that face volunteer services across the province.
District Chiefs from Station 1, Hank Williams, and Station 3, Dave Krawiec, addressed council last night to support the full-time hiring.
Mr. Williams, whose service in Alliston and New Tecumseth stretches over 30 years, told councillors that he was finding it difficult to sit back and quietly listen to the debates over the past month. He noted the level of calls topping over 400 a year were taking a toll on the members.
"As the demands increase we find balancing our family life and our work life challenging, like most, when it comes between choosing family and volunteer firefighting the choice will always be family first," he said. "Over the past 30 years, I've seen changes in the fire service. When I started in 1982, Alliston had 40 fire calls. Now we can do that in a month. This amount, when combined with training requirements, and day to day of our personal lives, is more than a volunteer part-time firefighter can reasonably handle. There are no days off, no stat days, no time in lieu in the volunteer service. Birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, New Years, we respond. We have heard the difficulty of recruitment. With all due respect, the days of councillor Stone's fire service past has passed, and the career volunteer has all but disappeared. (...) It's time to recognize change is needed, and we need to put that in motion."
Mr. Krawiec said recruitment efforts over the past few years were hampered by the fact potential volunteers are required to commit at least 14.5 hours per week just in training and other duties, not including time spent responding to calls.
"What other volunteer group do you know of that trains as much as we do, to help those in need at the lowest and most challenging moments of their life?" he asked. "The hours dedicated, the hours away from family, and all the protection we provide in our community. Training also happens away from the station.... Time away from family. So a week away for training, costs in more ways than one."
Then there's the hiring process in itself, which he noted has been transformed entirely from Councillor Stone's era.
"When you wanted to be a volunteer firefighter for the town of Tottenham, you showed up on a Tuesday night, that was me, explaining your interest to be a volunteer firefighter. Your application was submitted and it moved on to the monthly meeting at the station where the firefighters voted you in or out. There was no HR or interview process at that time. You needed one person on that department to be your sponsor and your sponsor was the guy who would teach you and show you the ropes, so to speak. That person was your guide and mentor for the next few years until he felt you can do that job. So after I was hired, I was riding on the back tail board of a truck, two weeks after I was hired with little or no experience, living life large," said Mr. Krawiec, adding, "In today's world, if that happened and there was an accident, well, you guys know better than me, what a lawsuit's all about. Today we can't afford that. There are laws, and something called due diligence in place to protect the Town, the chief, and each firefighter."
He also touched on an issue that hasn't been discussed during the month long budget debate, and that volunteers with the New Tecumseth Fire Service are not provided with mental health support to deal with issues that could arise as a result of fire or accident scenes.
"We need to ensure they are emotionally and physically ready to do a job that most can't do. I'm not sure if you're aware, but psychological and emotional support is not available to us volunteers should trauma be a factor for a volunteer. They are left to fend for themselves, cost for counselling is self absorbed. The only recourse in most cases is the support of our fellow volunteers, our brothers and our sisters. There are many situations that we see that no one would ever want to see. We are the guys you call. No questions asked, we show up 24/7."
When the issue turned back to council, Ward 1 councillor Bob Marrs said it "boggles my mind" that members of council were rejecting the "recommendations and measures by a department head."
"I look at the fire chief who has brought in these recommendations, he is the guy who's responsible, yet you've listened to others who are not responsible or accountable," said Mr. Marrs. "You've listened to one of the senior volunteers (Station 1 captain Glen Ackerman), and said, 'oh yeah, we should listen to him, it's cheaper.' You've listened to an ex-fire chief who hung up his boots over 20 years ago. We have a different thing now, it's not the same as it was back then."
"I don't think I'm as far out of touch with this situation as is being indicated," countered Mr. Stone. "I can stand on my record, it doesn't matter how far back it goes."
"I don't think adding two firefighters to Alliston or Tottenham is going to make any difference at all, it might make some difference, but the problem is you don't have enough firefighters. 30's not enough. I thought Glen Ackerman made a better proposal than the (consultant) that we hired. I feel that we have to get a lot more people involved before this problem is solved. You think any of the firefighters down here think that two more is going to solve all the problems? I don't think so. Maybe the ones that want to be hired would think so.
I believe we need a lot more, and I don't believe that there isn't enough people out there. Being a firefighter to me is a badge of honour... I think we should have a drive, and get a lot of volunteers. I believe it's a life style that isn't as bad as made out. Yes there's a lot of work but there's a lot of reward in this job, a lot more reward than there is work. And in this report, I find it intimidating and threatening, and that we should only listen to two people, and those are the only two people that know anything about the problem, and that is the fire chief and the consultant."
Last week, Mr. Ackerman said one of the problems the fire department was facing in New Tecumseth is with a system that takes one year of training before volunteers are permitted to respond to calls.
"I'm not asking they send a volunteer into a situation they're not trained for," said Mr. Stone, "but you're saying you don't have enough people on the fire ground and you're going to add two more, it's still not enough people,. You're going to come back and say you need 10 more, 20 more whatever down the road. We can solve it with volunteers. I believe that volunteers should be respected, included and not excluded until they receive a year's training or whatever. We have a system here that it takes once a year to do recruitment. I don't know how they do it, then it takes another year to train the firefighter and get them out so they'll do anything. Can you say that these people can't go out and help at a scene of an accident, or help on a fire ground? I know there's about 50 things that need to be done on a fire ground that are not dangerous. And these people are given a piece of the action, and make them proud, and feel like they've accomplished something."
When asked why actions weren't taken in 2004 to start boosting the number of volunteers, Chief Heydon said the growth that was projected during that time did not materialize, so it was pushed back. As well, a Station 4, likely in east end Alliston, is slated to be part of the 2014 budget process.
In response to Mr. Stone's comments, Councillor Smith, said it was "the 4th time I sat through that particular speech in the last month and if I hear it another 40 or 50 times, I might start to believe it, but at this point, I don't."
"I think we need firemen now. It's pretty clear it's going to cost us some money," he said. "Several members of council have made it a money issue, but it isn't. It's a service issue and it's a safety issue. We're not getting service, and it's not safe, and sooner or later somebody's going to die."
Mr. Smith also lampooned the notion of Mr. Stone meeting with the fire administration and offering ideas on how to solve the problem.
"We have to make this decision tonight, and we have to decide whether safety is worth six cents, five cents a day, per household. Or it's not worth it. This is the first time, and I''ve been on council for 10 years, this is the first time I have ever been embarrassed by the behaviour of some members."
Just prior to the vote on a motion to hire four full-time firefighters to start in July, mayor Mike MacEachern said it was good enough for him that the chiefs said they needed the full-time personnel.
"I support our chief, I support the district chiefs, and certainly support their comments when they say, in order to solve this issue adding to the volunteer roster is not going to solve the issue. It seems to be expensive without a guarantee that it's actually going to resolve the issue," said the mayor. "When we talk about affordability, that doesn't really resonate as strongly with me as it does around the safety issue we have now. ... It's incumbent upon us to resolve that issue now. And the only way to do that is to support the chief's recommendation, the consultant's recommendation, and the things you've heard from a number people this evening that we have to start investing in providing a level of support to allow that safety to happen. I certainly appreciate everybody has a different way of coming at it, but I just don't see, and I haven't been convinced that hiring a bunch more volunteers is really going to resolve the issues, and we've heard from the experts, it's really not going to."
The motion lost, ending the foray into full-time firefighter at least until the next budget cycle in 2014. In the meantime, councillors voted to use surplus funds to finance a $197,000 injection of money, whose uses will be subject of further reports. However, the target will be to bolster recruitment, training, and retention of volunteers. It's likely to include incentives for stand-by responses.