COMMENTARY: Cornwall firefighters’ union points out obvious…to make a case?

In this Feb. 2, 2015, file photo, a fire truck sits outside the Brookdale Arms apartment complex on Brookdale Avenue. (Newswatch Group/File)

I’m Bill Kingston with today’s commentary. Where there’s smoke there’s fire…or at least the Cornwall Professional Firefighters Association would have you believe that after digging up an Ontario Fire Marshal report from August 2013 reviewing the fire service. At the time, the report made 22 recommendations to improve the department including clearly outlining responsibilities. It makes no mention of staffing levels.

There’s no doubt the Cornwall Fire Department is a complex animal filled with regulations, guidelines and policies. Given the scope of that work the department can’t continue without a deputy fire chief – that’s a given – and it’s surprising it’s been allowed to go on this long.

The department has seen its challenges going back to 2008 when the management structure was changed to the EMS chief responsible for the fire department with two deputy fire chiefs. That experiment turned out to be a failure. Fast forward to the last two years where you’ve had two deputy fire chiefs move on and now a fire chief ready to retire in the spring. So the association is correct in saying their issues at the top.

The association makes the point that almost every time there’s a major house fire, firefighters are collecting overtime. But adding more firefighters – their suggestion based on the National Fire Protection Association is there should be 15 workers on any shift as opposed to the current 14 – is not going to solve the problems at the top. It’s only going to add to the bottom line.

Overtime costs may seem expensive on the surface but the general public needs to look at more than just the paycheque. Adding full-time firefighters, adds the Canada Pension Plan benefits, Employer Health Tax, Employment Insurance, WSIB and medical benefits the city has to pay for. Plus you need to add in payments for Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS), which has become an added burden on municipalities. This year, the city stands to pay $504,000 more for those benefits for all municipal workers. After a firefighter retires at 60, the city is still paying OMERS for that member.

As for the problems in the fire service, if there were systemic issues still plaguing the department, why has the association chosen to air its dirty laundry at budget time? The Ontario Fire Marshal also had a person assigned to the city to make sure the recommendations from the 2013 report were implemented. Wouldn’t they have spoken up if the city sidestepped its responsibly? I’ll give the association credit. As a union they’re in the business of job preservation. Anything to convince the public their safety is at risk through the optics of the dysfunction of the department is good for business.

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