Concerns raised with announcement of pending closure of Fire College

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GORE BAY – Gore Bay town council has joined other councils and firefighters in voicing their concerns with the recent announcement by the Ontario government that it plans to close the Ontario Fire College at the end of March.

“It’s going to hurt; firefighters are not going to have the opportunity to get the training they have in the past,” stated John Reid, Central Manitoulin fire chief. “There are a number of local firefighters that have used the college for training and necessary courses. It’s going to be harder to get the training.”

Gore Bay council dealt with the issue at a meeting this past Monday after receiving a resolution from the Corporation of the Township of Baldwin on this issue. In the motion it is pointed out the province wants to mandate training levels for firefighters and now wishes to close the Ontario Fire College in Gravenhurst, which has been used for many government agencies such as the Ministry of Transportation, Ontario Provincial Police, as well as firefighters (both full-time and volunteer). 

“Only a small percentage of our department has any formal training and are responsible to train junior firefighters with the minimal training we receive, and as volunteers we are on call 24/7/365 with day jobs and families that expect us to come home safely each and every time. The fire college makes top tier training accessible to all fire departments in Ontario, and while municipalities are mandated to have fire departments, there is no provincial or federal funding for volunteer fire departments for much needed equipment and training.” The motion also noted, “without a plan in place it is irresponsible to close down a vital training centre that serves Ontario and it would put municipalities at risk which is short-sighted and not acceptable Be it resolved that the Corporation of the Township of Baldwin requests the province of Ontario to reconsider closing this all-important facility for dollars over lives.”

“I would suggest we get direction from our fire board or the fire chief; if either says we should support this motion we could do that,” said Gore Bay Councillor Jack Clark. 

Stasia Carr, town clerk, told council that she had talked to Mike Addison, Gore Bay fire chief. “He said we should support the motion. There will be a large cost difference in firefighters taking the training elsewhere.” 

Council passed a motion requesting the province reconsider closing the Ontario Fire College. A similar motion had been passed by Gordon/Barrie Island council at a meeting last week.

Mr. Addison told the Recorder, “every once in a while we receive a notice as fire chiefs of a meeting with the Ontario Fire Marshal (OFM). It was at this point we received a call that they were closing the fire college at the end of March. It was always very affordable to take the necessary courses, $65 each, and firefighters stayed in dorm rooms on campus (with food and accommodations provided). It was very affordable. Instead of closing the college, maybe a better solution may have been to raise the price of this training at the college, even to say $100 a day per fire fighter.”

Mr. Addison said that during  the call the fire chiefs received, “it sounded like the fire marshal didn’t know this move had been coming, that the decision had been made and that their office had no say in the decision.” 

“I know a lot of fire chiefs are upset that there should have at least been some consultation, so we could provide input and maybe find a solution,” said Mr. Addison. “And, there has been an uproar among municipalities.” He noted a meeting has been called by the fire marshal’s office for later this month with fire chiefs across the province. 

The fire college, “has been around for years and very good, very affordable fire training has been provided,” stated Mr. Addison. “Yes, I have to admit I was a little blindsided by the news.”

“It was always nice to know it was there,” said Mr. Addison.

Mr. Reid said, “if they are going to close the college the province should step up and provide more training and to add more staff to provide for this.” He pointed out over the years OFM has cut staff numbers. He also noted the costs of training for firefighters from independent trainers is going to increase significantly.  

Chris McConnell, president of OPSEU Local 317 representing the workers of the fire college said in a letter to municipalities, “we are writing to you regarding the province’s announcement on January 13, 2021, of the impending closure of the Gravenhurst campus of the Ontario Fire College on March 31, 2021. We know that at least two of the three associations quoted in the Ontario government’s press release were not informed that the government would close the Ontario Fire College in Gravenhurst.” 

“The Ontario government says its plans to modernize and regionalize fire service training will be more cost-effective and accessible to municipalities. Yet, the government has not shared a plan showing how these changes will provide training of equal value in a more cost-effective and accessible manner for municipalities across Ontario,” wrote Mr. McConnell. “The province’s regionalization model currently has memorandums of understanding with a mixed bag of 20 ‘regional training centres’ (RTCs) located in various parts of Ontario. The municipalities’ cost to send one firefighter to an RTC range between $300 and $1,200 for the course alone. This cost does not include accommodations or meals.” 

“The Gravenhurst campus of the Ontario Fire College has modern facilities and equipment where subject matter experts provide training in all fire service disciplines. The cost is $65 for a municipality to send one firefighter to the college. That cost includes onsite accommodations and three meals a day. In shifting firefighter training to RCSs, the price for training our firefighters will shift to your municipality’s taxpayers. If the government revives O.Reg 379/18 (firefighter certification) while shuttering the college, the growth in training demand and cost will be significant,” wrote Mr. McConnell. 

“It would be sad to see it go,” said Mr. Addison. He pointed out that more things, such as inspections of nursing homes for fire safety, is one of several things that have been downloaded onto fire departments over the years, “and now this. I don’t know where this is all going to end.”