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Tie vote keeps full-time firefighters in budget package

Posted January 29, 2013

An attempt to remove about $303,350 councillors agreed to include in the 2013 budget nearly three weeks ago to hire six full-time firefighters, ended last night in a 4-4 deadlock, and will remain in the final draft going to committee next week for recommendation, followed by a ratification vote in council Feb. 11.

In 2014, the impact is projected to be over $500,000 over a full-year, not including the cost of an additional response vehicle.

Those opposed to establishing the "hybrid" fire service were Ward 4 councillor Fran Sainsbury, Ward 6 councillor Richard Norcross, Ward 7, Bruce Haire, and Ward 8, Jim Stone.

Mayor Mike MacEachern, Ward 1, Bob Marrs, Ward 2, Jamie Smith, and Ward 3, Paul Whiteside, voted in favour. Mr. Whiteside's support for the amended hiring option put forward by Chief Dan Heydon that reduced the hiring to four, saving about $159,000 in 2013, was seconded by Ms. Sainsbury, but failed to find any support.

Deputy mayor Rick Milne has declared a conflict of interest on the matter citing his son, a full-time firefighter in Vaughan, as the reason, and did not vote. Ward 5 councillor Donna Jebb was absent and did not vote.

However, because of the deputy mayor's conflict, the firefighter matter will have to be pulled from the budget and voted on as a separate item. Barring any changes in the positions on either side of the 4-4, Ms. Jebb's vote could still derail the hiring. She has been absent for the past two meetings, and her position on the issue has not been expressed yet in public.

Mr. Marrs said he could not understand why councillors were doubting the fire chief's justifications for the full-time support.

"He's come to us and said, 'this is what I need to feel comfortable, that we can do the job that we're supposed to do for emergency services' and here we are second guessing him," said Mr. Marrs. "I'm sorry, as far as I'm concerned we should be giving him what he feels he needs. If we find some way that we don't believe that, and we're doing something else, or you don't feel we should be doing it, than I think you have to question his ability, and I'm certainly not going to do that."

Mr. Stone, citing his 42 years as a fire chief in Tottenham, and a founding member of departments in Adjala and Rosemont, said the answer is in attracting more volunteers.

"This whole proposal is based on the paradigm that we cannot get volunteers. And Alliston has been operating with a staff of 30; 35 in Beeton, and 40 in Tottenham. And I don't think you can run a fire department with 30 volunteers," said Mr. Stone, who blamed the bylaw that established the amalgamated fire service in 1991, along with the staffing levels, as a limiting factor.

The Ward 8 councillor also raised for the first time in the debate, the notion that once a full-time firefighting service is established, it will attract the firefighters union drive, and with it, the eradication of "two-hatters" (full-time firefighters who also volunteer in the communities they live in).

"The union will come along and clean out all of the two-hatters in the fire department. I believe we have seven in Tottenham, and one in Beeton. If we lose those types of people because of the move that we're making, I think it's going to hurt the Tottenham Fire Department," he said. There's also notion of the "offset" savings which is money saved that's not paid to the part-timers because the full-time personnel would respond first.

"This is money we're taking from our volunteers and saying we're saving this because now we have two standards of firefighters, a first class and second class which is the volunteers. I think this is going to create a big problem, you're talking human nature here," said Mr. Stone. "(...) I'm suggesting we put out a drive for volunteers and do it that way. You have to get at least to 40, get it up to 45. Do like Schomberg, they give them incentives for hanging around on the weekend when you're having the problems."

Chief Heydon reiterated that past recruitment efforts have yielded results, but that once many of the applicants realize the time commitment to training, and availability, and requirements for day-time responses, resignations are common.

Mr. Stone, who was part of the decision making team that appointed Mr Heydon as chief, said he's never regretted it.

"But I can't sit back and say let us get this proposal through. I think it will destroy the integrity of the fire department. And there's a lot of argument for that, it has in many communities," he said. "You can't have two standards, you can't have two sets of rules, 'well you don't respond in the daytime because you're just a volunteer. We're going to put professionals out there because we're going to save your points and pay the professionals.' That's the situation you're creating, and it will be a bad situation and no end to it. .... I think it's premature, I think we should try and get some volunteers, and I believe in Alliston here we can get a lot of volunteers."

Mayor MacEachern said the issue has always boiled down to ensuring the viability of the department "to continue into the future."

"That is what all this has been about. It's not about whether we're going to have an issue. We have an issue, the chief has identified it, this is a way to support the volunteer firefighters, this is a way to help them continue to have a strong volunteer firefighter service," he said.

"If you (directed to councillor Norcross) want it removed, that was pulled so you can remove it. There are 4 and 4, that is not happening. As it sits right now, we have six full-time sitting in the budget. That's where we sit. It's in. You want it out, make your argument for it to come out. That argument wasn't made."

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