Municipalities, volunteer fire departments worry about upgrading costs of time, treasure

Members of the Robinson Township Fire Department in 2020. File photo.

New training regulations stipulated by province

MANITOULIN—“Daunting” is one of the words that was used by firefighters in describing the effects new mandatory fire certification regulations could have on some local volunteer fire departments.  Ontario is requiring professional levels of training for all firefighters.

“My fire chief and I are discouraged by the certification regulations as they have been drafted,” said Tim Mackinlay, deputy fire chief for Robinson Township at a Manitoulin Municipal Association (MMA) meeting last week. “I can see not having a fire department in the next few years.” He said both the township and the fire department “can’t afford the costs involved, and firefighters are not going to go for five days off the Island to learn pumper training.”

“The outlook will be daunting if changes aren’t made to the regulations. It won’t be good at all. If the province is pushing this, they need to bring the trainers and certification training to us,” said Mr. Mackinlay. “But my fear is that this is all a done deal, and the outlook will be grim four years down the road.”

“Everyone is aware that Dwayne Elliott, the fire chief of Assiginack and I are the fire coordinators for Manitoulin,” said Mike Addison, fire chief for Gore Bay and Gordon/Barrie Island. “We also coordinate mutual aid. One of the main concerns that I have is that some fire departments will have the chance to achieve the fire certification regulations, but some won’t. With mutual aid, if we lose neighbouring fire departments, we lose our backup help.”

It was mentioned at the meeting that the cost for the Town of Hornepayne to have all its firefighters go through the mandatory certification will be about $300,000.

Mr. Addison said, “we held a meeting recently with all the Island fire chiefs and have also met with fire chiefs in other areas that are already going through the full certification. I go from one day thinking I don’t need all this and that it would be a damn good day to retire, to the next day thinking ‘we can do this’.”

“It will be a lot of work,” stated Mr. Addison, “and it will take a huge commitment on behalf of firefighters and trainers who are volunteers.” He had taken a survey of fire departments on the Island. “Six of eight municipalities responded, and what we found is that (of those six fire departments) there are 129 firefighters, 37 certified to firefighter one (first level), 25 at firefighter two, 15 are certified to be fire officers, only eight firefighters are certified pump operators, which is not good (considering there is supposed to be one certified for every fire truck each local fire department has), there are 13  training officers, and 40 firefighters have they Z/AZ licence to drive the fire trucks.”

“The Island has fire departments where no one is certified, and some that don’t have fire trainers,”  continued Mr. Addison. “I think at this point, we need to work together and need council’s support in each area. We need to open up training to the entire Island and do training for everyone together.”

Richard Stephens, mayor of the Municipality of Central Manitoulin had told the MMA earlier in the meeting, “this is a major concern for our area in certification of firefighters. We met with our firefighter team last night. The message was loud and clear: all our firefighters are volunteers. The time and costs that are involved in getting everyone certified the same as full-time firefighters is certainly concerning. We definitely want training for our firefighters as well as firefighters who are full-time, but the methods the province is putting in place is going to make this difficult.”

Mr. Addison said, “this all comes down to liability concerns because there have been cases of firefighters dying at the scene of fires. Coroners reports into these deaths are saying that firefighters who are dying were not qualified to do the tasks they were attempting. I know our (Gore Bay/Gordon/Barrie Island) firefighters train to national fire protection association standards, but we’ve never had the final certification process done or examiners come to do the testing.” He noted that in South River, which has a higher population than the combined numbers of Gore Bay and Gordon/Barrie Island,  “they are telling us it will be very hard to comply with the mandatory certification requirements.”

“The fire chiefs on the Island are trying to work together,” said Mr. Addison. “I’m a trainer, but there may be things that I am not as skilled in as a trainer as someone else might be. And if firefighters aren’t certified in three years, they will be left out of this.”

As municipalities, “you need to push back,” stated Mr. Addison. “We know there was work done behind the scenes on the new mandatory certification. The Association of Municipalities of Ontario supported the changes in the regulations months before we heard anything about it, as did the Ontario Fire Chiefs Association.”

“It would make sense for every council to support a motion outlining their concerns. This is going to cost everyone a lot of money,” said Gore Bay Mayor Dan Osborne.

It was pointed out for fire chiefs, if there is ever an injury to a firefighter, the Ministry of Labour would hold the fire chiefs liable in these cases.

Mr. Addison said he likes the fire certification proposals because all volunteer firefighters would meet the standards of full-time firefighters, but the municipalities can’t afford the costs, and there are not enough resources on the Island. “The province closed the fire training college last year  and said that fire trainers would come to each area to help out fire departments. It would cost $80 for books (for each firefighter). We don’t have this money to provide this. The real problem, as Richard (Stephens) indicated, is that you can’t ask volunteer firefighters to come out for even more training without compensation. And there is a price tag to all of this, and a time limit when all firefighters need to be certified.”

“I love the job, but I can tell you for all the hours I put in as fire chief, I probably make about three dollars per hour,” said Mr. Addison.

In the 1990s all ambulance services were made up of volunteer members, Mr. Addison told the meeting. “These ambulance services were run by volunteers, not full-time paramedics. Eventually the province took over the ambulance service, and I think the province provides 50 percent of the costs with the municipalities paying a share. Maybe this same system will have to be put in place for fire services.”

Ken Noland, chair of the MMA and reeve of Burpee and Mills township added, “as municipal councils we need to be talking to our fire chiefs on this issue. And we have to work together if we are going to have fire departments, with combined training, or whatever it takes.”