TORONTO – Michael Mantha, MPP for Algoma-Manitoulin, has raised his concerns with provincial officials in regard to the announcement that the Ontario Fire Training College in Gravenhurst is set to close at the end of March.
“Yes, I am very much concerned. Especially with the concern about a lack of consultation by the ministry with the many municipalities that rely on the college for training their firefighters,” Mr. Mantha told the Recorder last Friday. “The government decision to shut down the college and rely on the regional training centres will be available in the south (of Ontario). But in Northern Ontario, due to our geography and the finances that it will cost municipalities that have volunteer fire departments, it will be quite costly.”
“We are asking the province to reconsider their decision and maintain the fire college,” said MPP Mantha. He pointed out, “the training provided at the college is second to none. Most Northern Ontario municipalities rely on being able to get training at the college.”
MPP Mantha, in a letter to Solicitor General Sylvia Jones dated January 27 wrote, “my office recently is receiving calls and letters from fire chiefs, municipal leaders and volunteer firefighters in the Algoma-Manitoulin area who have raised considerable alarm about the sudden and unexpected closure of the Ontario Fire Training College in Gravenhurst. The chiefs have indicated that they only very recently learned during a conference call that the province plans to close the college effective March 31. This leaves almost no time for comment or input. There was absolutely no prior consultation or even notice given.”
“Firefighting services for almost all communities in Algoma-Manitoulin are provided by smaller brigades, which are primarily volunteer,” wrote MPP Mantha. “As such, departments in this region do not have the substantive backing of large municipalities that are funded by broad tax bases. This already puts small departments at a training disadvantage when compared to those who service larger centres. In fact, some of the fire departments in Algoma-Manitoulin do not even have municipal tax dollars but instead rely solely upon revenue collected by Northern local service boards.”
“It is clear from the correspondence that I have received that this government decision was made without consulting those on the front lines across the province,” continued MPP Mantha. “The decision quite simply came hurtling at local chiefs unexpectedly without any necessary details such as time frames, funding, requirements or explanations on how training and funding would be introduced over an adjustment period with built-in supports. There was no thought of consultation, communication or transparency on the government’s part. It was not, ‘here is the problem, here is what we need to do, here is a plan, help us make it work.’ It was more along the lines of ‘here is what we are going to do. We will figure out as we go.’”
“It should come as no surprise that the needs and challenges facing Northern departments are not the same as those in other regions,” wrote MPP Mantha. “As an example, I refer you to the letter that I have enclosed that I received from fire chief Jim Kent of Bruce Mines. Upon reading Fire Chief Kent’s letter, it is clear that it is not possible for the government to make a full informed decision if they have not heard from all of the players and try to understand the unique challenges Northerners face. This shows a grievous lack of respect and courtesy for smaller and Northern communities on the part of the ministry.”
“It is important also to note that fire brigades in southern Ontario are within relative close proximity to several firefighting training centres scattered across the province. Northern departments have been counting on constant reliable and affordable access to the Gravenhurst training centre for decades. My office has been informed that firefighters could register for training at the Gravenhurst centre for as little as $65, which provided them with housing, food and training throughout the training session. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the proposed mobile training opportunities recently announced will not be anywhere near as affordable for communities,” continued MPP Mantha.
Mr. Mantha wrote, “it would seem clear that this decision is simply a sleight of hand move by the province to download expenses from the government onto municipalities and local service boards. And when there are no funds available in their treasury, it is easy to imagine efforts to pass the costs on to local volunteers who want to ensure their friends, neighbours and families have at least some form of fire protection.”
“In conclusion, I ask that your solicitor general’s office immediately halt and review its plans to revamp the proposed changes to firefighter training until a complete and proper consultation with front-line fire brigade leaders has taken place.”