News Local

Deep River, fire dept. dispute

By Stephen Uhler, The Daily Observer

DEEP RIVER – The ongoing feud between Deep River Town Council and its fire department is being taken to the public.

 

On Friday, members of the Deep River Fire Department, along with supporters from the Pembroke Fire Department, and leading representatives of both the Ontario Professional Firefighters Association and the International Association of Firefighters, gathered at Deep River Valu-Mart to publicize what they say are changes to the department which jeopardize the safety of town residents.

Travelling in teams of five throughout town, the group handed out cards stating how town council has recently cut the number of its firefighters in half, and changes in the work schedule means the fire hall is closed 75 per cent of the time.

Rob McLaren. President of the Deep River Professional Firefighter Association Local 1276, said they currently have four full time firefighters working out of nine which are listed in the current collective agreement. Three have retired and weren't replaced, and two others are on sick leave.

“They have cut front line firefighters,” he said, adding since the town has decided to initiate a call-out procedure for after hours response, there is no 24-hour fire service after 6:30 p.m. weekdays, and none on weekends.

McLaren said what has been happening is the town has been trying to break the current collective agreement and alter the makeup of the department. An arbitrator had been called in 2014 and he suggested they keep nine full time staff, or reduce the number to eight full time firefighters and have a composite department of full time and volunteers.

He said council wouldn't move on this decision, and so the arbitrator was called in again in 2017 and reaffirmed his ruling. Rather than follow through with the ruling, town council instead decided July 12 to switch firefighters to days only shifts and to implement the call-out system. He said it is clear the town intends to rely on mutual aid to make up the difference.

“Now they are just stripping the department completely, while relying on mutual aid as their back up.” McLaren said.

What the local department wants to do is let people know these changes have reduced the fire service, and to advise them to lobby the mayor and council about this situation.

Both Ann Bryan, vice president of the Ontario Professional Firefighters Association, and Fred LeBlanc, vice president of the International Association of Firefighters, spoke out about the situation. Both said in their long years as firefighters themselves, they have never heard of a situation like the one Deep River is in.

“They have found themselves in the midst of a labour dispute which is affecting public safety,” Bryan said. “This town had an opportunity to form a composite department, and they didn't do it.”

“The citizens of Deep River need to understand what is happening,” she said.

This situation began when Deep River council decided to try and get a handle on its finances, and looked to restructure the fire department as part of that effort.

Mayor Joan Lougheed said in its current form of nine full time firefighters and one part time fire chief, running the department costs $1.5 million annually, about 20 per cent of the entire budget. That works out to $863 per household. For comparison, Renfrew County's average for fire protection is $196, while the city of Pembroke is at $414.

She said for that kind of cost, the town still cannot on its own meet its fire suppression needs, according to an Ontario Fire Marshal Review in 2011, and has had to rely on mutual aid help from Laurentian Hills Township to make up shortfalls. To effectively fight a residential fire, they need 16 firefighters on the scene, while a bigger structure like an apartment building requires 24 firefighters.

Faced with that and the costs involved, Lougheed said they put before the community a survey with two options: maintain eight full-time firefighters and hire 24 volunteers, increasing their overall costs to $968 per household and seeing this increase over the next decade; or attempt to reduce through attrition the number of full time firefighters from eight to two, while adding the 24 volunteers.

“Mutual aid is a vital component of fire protection, and always has been,” she said, along with teaching fire safety and prevention to the public, but the latter model of two full time and 24 volunteers council was suggesting is an attempt to address that while creating a service they can afford. This was rejected by the firefighters, who went to arbitration instead on two separate occasions, with the arbitrator suggesting a blended fire department of eight or nine firefighters and volunteers both times.

Lougheed said it was left as an option for council to follow, not a requirement, and it would still be too rich for Deep River ratepayers to handle.

During this, she said firefighters have refused to get training so they can operate around the clock – there is a lack of fire captains necessary to permit it and supervise the shifts – so the town had little choice but to switch them to day shifts. Further complicating this, the department members won't wear pagers for call-outs, stating within their collective agreement they are not required to do so.

Lougheed said they have been keeping the Office of the Fire Marshall updated on the situation, and will be meeting with representatives from the office later this month to discuss this further.

LeBlanc said the firefighters are willing to talk to council at any time, while also looking at other avenues including legal in order to resolve this matter.

SUhler@postmedia.com