Arbitration won’t result in fire-medics: ministry

Arbitration won’t result in fire-medics: ministry
By Luke Hendry
Belleville Intelligencer
Link to article: Arbitration won’t result in fire-medics: ministry

Ontario’s health ministry plans to ensure arbitrators can’t force municipalities to employ firefighters in the dual role of fire-medic, The Intelligencer has learned.

The Ontario government is seeking municipalities to run two pilot projects studying the potential benefits of firefighters who are trained as paramedics working in both capacities.

“We are consulting with municipalities, front line workers and emergency services in terms of program design for the two pilots,” a ministry spokesperson told The Intelligencer Friday via e-mail.

“We will take the necessary steps to ensure that interest arbitration doesn’t result in replication across municipalities,” the spokesperson added.

The Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association, meanwhile, is seeking support for its petition to the government to allow fire-medics. The association represents 11,000 firefighters.

“We have 10 per cent of our firefighters in this province that hold that certification,” association president Rob Hyndman said in January 2017. “Why would we want to prevent them from practising their skill set, when they arrive the vast majority of the time, before the ambulance?”

Municipalities worry about costs, liability and the potential for arbitration to force them into a program they say they can’t afford.

Hastings County officials had already expressed publicly their disapproval of the idea but formalized it Thursday. Councillors voted to support the Association of Municipalities Ontario’s opposition to the program.

“The biggest fear is – if it ever starts – that it’s going to be mandated and all 444 municipalities are going to have to have it,” Warden Rodney Cooney said.

Cooney is mayor of Stirling-Rawdon. He said staff there calculated the fire-medic concept, if forced upon their municipality, would cost taxpayers an extra $500,000 per year.

County chief administrative officer Jim Pine said county councillors voted unanimously to send “a very strong statement” to the province and call for a formal assurance other municipalities won’t be forced into training and employing fire-medics.

“You have to put something in legislation that will keep an arbitrator from imposing on communities that don’t want to do this,” Pine said.

“That’s the way this whole system has worked in the past … One community has something and then an arbitrator will impose that on another community.”

He said the county’s leaders “hope there aren’t” any municipalities willing to take part in the pilots.

Belleville’s fire chief, Mark MacDonald, has said his service won’t volunteer for a pilot. Four city firefighters have paramedic training. The fire-medic issue is of special concern with municipalities relying on volunteer departments. Belleville’s urban core is covered by professionals, but volunteers cover rural Thurlow ward.

“Already our medical training costs us significant money every year, so it becomes a funding issue,” MacDonald said in January. Then you have to look at how you structure the collective agreements and is there now going to be a request for an increase in salary?”

“It just doesn’t make sense,” Pine said.

Cooney said when firefighters are dispatched for medical reasons, “The ambulance isn’t very far behind.

“If we need more paramedics, let’s have more paramedics,” he said.

In the meantime, said Cooney, Ontario should let firefighters be firefighters and “and paramedics be paramedics.”

“This is not anything at all that we have any plans to roll out across the province,” Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins said last year. “We simply want to either prove or disprove that it’s going to benefit patients.”

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