What’s really going on with the Sundridge-Strong fire services?

Link to article: What’s really going on with the Sundridge-Strong fire services?
North Bay Nippissing News

Conflicting opinions are not the only reason why the Township of Strong and Village of Sundridge have been unable to come up with a compromise about their shared fire services since budget discussions began in November 2017.

Shared services within the region are tricky to begin with, but when it comes to financial burdens coming down on small municipalities thanks to provincial regulation changes — it can make things even trickier.

An initial budget of $799,565 proposed by fire Chief Grant Love in a January committee meeting has been highly scrutinized, particularly by those sitting at the Township of Strong table who have been insistent on seeing a much lower number for the sake of their taxpayers.

“I understand what he (Chief Love) is asking, we aren’t expecting our fire department to not live up to regulation, but this just won’t work,” said Mayor Christine Ellis in a joint meeting on May 14. “If you have a budget increase that large, you have to raise taxes by six, seven, eight per cent in one year — we can’t do it.”

“They are obviously not thinking about rural areas with all of this, I don’t know how they think it is going to happen." — Coun. Don Richardson
But the aspects of the recently proposed budget are not due to personal requests of the chief — they are provincial regulation changes specific to fire services, changes to the minimum wage, and the need for updated equipment at the station.

COST # 1: TRAINING AND CERTIFICATION REQUIREMENTS

New training and certification rules outline that while existing firefighters will be ‘grandfathered’ and not required to undergo training, all new firefighters as of July 2019, as well as anyone in the role, or wishing to step into the role of an officer position (captain or acting captain) would need to be trained to National Fire Protection Association standards.

“Right now we only have five members who are grandfathered,” Chief Love told fire committee members. “We have two acting captains who would have to go back to become certified firefighters before they could do the certified officer program and they have to do that by 2020. Two existing captains would have to do the same.”

This would mean volunteer firefighters, most of which are working full time, would need to be compensated for the time lost in taking the training, and the cost of the training itself would need to be covered.

“They are obviously not thinking about rural areas with all of this, I don’t know how they think it is going to happen,” said Sundridge Coun. Don Richardson — something representatives on both the Sundridge and Strong side could agree on.

Ellis called the timeline of the required training and certifications "impossible."

“It is going to be about four years of work put into two years, but it is possible,” the chief responded. “It is just a matter of whether or not the municipalities are willing to put up that funding.”

He added the provincial level government has promised to assist smaller communities with the financial burden, but he is not quite sure what that might look like just yet.

COST #2: EQUIPMENT UPDATES

The fire station also needs new self-contained breathing apparatuses.

The department currently uses three different editions of breathing apparatus and it was noted during testing in 2015, prior to Chief Love’s arrival, that about half of those used by the fire department are not up to current standards, nor are they compatible with one another.

Bunker gear is also supposed to be replaced after 10 years but some of the current gear is older than that.

“Which, again, is a regulation that likely didn’t take small communities like ours into consideration,” said Love. “Equipment in a bigger department like Toronto probably gets used a whole lot more over 10 years than it does in a place like this, but it is still a standard we are expected to abide by.”

COST #3: ABIDING BY THE PROVINCIAL MINIMUM WAGE INCREASE

The recent minimum wage increase will also have a large impact on the shared budget, as firefighters in the municipality are currently only paid between $12 and $14 per hour. (Those rates increase for overnight calls, and if a firefighter responds to a call they are entitled to three hours of pay.)

The chief is currently proposing increasing those wages to a range of $14.70 and $16.52, depending on the individual’s role.

These two changes would cause an overall increase to the 2018 shared service budget of just over $40,000.

A question Ellis raised in a recent fire board committee meeting was whether or not volunteer firefighters are considered employees or not, and thus whether or not they are entitled to a wage increase — a point which Sundridge Mayor Lyle Hall could not understand arguing.

“First of all, it says right here in the chief’s report that under the Ontario Labour Relations act, they are employees,” he said. “So I don’t really know what we are arguing here.”

Which is accurate — but, the law is unclear as to whether or not they are employees under the provincial Employment Standards Act.

“I still don’t want us to send out a message that we don’t value their work though,” Hall continued.

Coun. Don Richardson added it didn’t seem fair for a Tim Hortons employee to be entitled to $14 an hour, but not firefighters.

Ellis stood firm in her belief that surrounding municipalities would not be abiding by the minimum wage hike though, and proposed the idea of finding out what volunteer firefighters earn in the rest of south Almaguin.

Chief Love added the Sundridge-Strong Fire Department offers the lowest pay in the region, but The News has not been able to confirm that information.

“And why would we do that?” said Hall. “We need to get this budget approved and this is just one more thing that is going to push back the process again. It can’t wait any longer.”

The fire chief presented two budget options in the end — option one, which hits the minimum requirements for all of the necessary changes at $584,000, and option two, a lower number requested by Strong which would not allow for all of the requirements to be met at $485,000 — both to be split equally between the two municipalities.

Hall suggested the village currently has enough in reserves to cover the portion of the budget Strong was not comfortable with forking out in 2018 in the form of a loan — but a conclusion was not reached as to whether that would work into the deal.

The two townships do appear to have nearly come to an agreement though with one condition on option one.

The conclusion was to pass most all of the budget, aside from the wage hike, until the fire chief is able to bring back a comparison of firefighter’s hourly wages from surrounding municipalities.

The committee is set to meet again, and hopefully make a final decision about the future of the fire service, on Tuesday (June 5).

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