Prince not sweating fire college closure
The Sault Star
 

No one in the Prince Township Fire Department is sounding the alarm over the closure of the Ontario Fire College on March 31.

In an e-mail interview, fire Chief Steve Hemsworth pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic has already shuttered the Gravenhurst, Ont., facility for almost a year, but the instruction, provincial testing, and firefighter certification have continued without it.

Members of the township’s volunteer fire department still train to the curriculum set by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and earn their certification, but they study their course material online and complete their practical work and exams on weekends at the township’s community centre.

“Prince Township hasn’t sent anyone to the fire college in recent memory,” Hemsworth said.

The Gravenhurst facility did offer its trainees some advantages. Registration fees were a modest $65/person. The training provided by the Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM), the accommodations, and the meals were all free of charge.

But for volunteer fire departments, the drawbacks outweighed the advantages, Hemsworth said.

For starters, there were so many applicants for spaces that fire departments had to book spaces a year in advance just to get their members on a waiting list.

Additionally, they had to cover their members’ travel expenses to and from Gravenhurst.  For Prince firefighters, the cost was roughly $500/vehicle. Hemsworth said.

But the biggest drawback was that volunteer firefighters had to book time away from their full-time jobs on the chance that a space at the fire college might become available.

“A Firefighter 1 course is nine days. That means our members (had) to take 11 days off from work, either unpaid or using their vacation time,” Hemsworth said.

More recently, the Office of the Fire Marshal began partnering with 20 regional training centres to provide the same courses that the Ontario Fire College had taught. The  difference, Hemsworth said, was that the training, accommodations, and meals were not free of charge.

The high cost of sending firefighters to regional training centres would overstretch the training budgets of rural volunteer fire departments.

“Our closest regional training centre is in Timmins, about the same distance as Gravenhurst,” Hemsworth said.

“They have to charge a fee to reimburse costs to pay instructors, provide props, and pay their expenses. So, in addition to paying the $65 registration fee and mileage, Prince would have to pay for hotel stays, meals, and the course fee.”

The course fee for each firefighter would vary between $400 and $1,300 depending on the course, Hemsworth added.

Fortunately, the township’s fire department chose a more affordable training model: bringing an OFM-certified instructor to Prince.

“The OFM has one full-time instructor in Thunder Bay.  He is the Northern Fire College,” Hemsworth said.

“He travels Northern Ontario providing and overseeing provincial training for northern fire departments. There are many provincially certified part-time instructors … that assist him with training,” Hemsworth said.

Whenever Prince’s fire department hosts a course, Hemsworth contacts the instructor in Thunder Bay to confirm the dates. The instructor arranges for course registrations and testing, and travels to Prince, with the OFM covering all his travel-related expenses.

The Prince department covers the $65 registration fee, textbook, and lunches.  It also provides the teaching venue, equipment and props. The cost for a three-day course is just $100/person, including registration and lunches.

To comply with pandemic protocols, the fire department began hosting courses at the community centre instead of the fire hall to allow more space for physical distancing.

Members of nearby fire departments have also enrolled for Prince’s courses at the same low cost, Hemsworth said.

In January, Prince Township Volunteer Fire Department hosted the NFPA’s 1041 Fire Instructor course, in which six Prince firefighters were joined by three from Sault Ste. Marie.

The long-term goal, Hemsworth said, is to have a pool of local instructors with enough teaching experience to instruct a full NFPA course.

But even though the training model used by Prince’s volunteer fire department  is open to all Northern Ontario fire departments, Hemsworth noted that only a few have adopted it.

When asked why, he replied, “Quite frankly, it’s a lot of work. I’m retired, but most other fire chiefs have full-time jobs.’’

Whenever Prince host a three-day course, Hemsworth needs five days to set up and take down the props, organize details and arrange for participants’ meals.

The model also places heavy demands on the firefighters, who must juggle up to 80 hours of online preparation with their regular jobs, emergency calls, and family commitments.

Last December, an NFPA Officer 1 training course turned into an endurance contest  when the Prince firefighters were called to fight a structure fire after completing an all-day classroom session.

“Myself and the Prince Township students spent all night fighting a fire, went home about 4:00 a.m., and got a couple of hours sleep before coming back to class in the morning,” Hemsworth recalled.

In the afternoon, the students wrote their certification exam.

But hard work and occasional hiccups are a small price to pay for the stay-at-home training model, and Hemsworth says he’s willing to host the courses as long as the model remains available and he’s the fire chief.

“Prince benefits, because we get enough firefighters together to hold the course with no additional cost, and other departments benefit from the economical training that they don’t have to travel hundreds of kilometers for,” Hemsworth said.

Not everyone is quite as calm about the Ontario Fire College closure.

Last month, Huron Shores, east of Sault Ste. Marie, raised the alarm, contending rural volunteer fire departments would suffer with the closure.

Council passed a resolution in support of Huron Shores Fire Chief Jim Kent’s concerns, arguing that closing the college would “place significant financial hardship” on the municipality and make it difficult for rural volunteer fire departments to meet provincially mandated standards.

Earlier in February, the Township of Machar, south of North Bay, also raised the issue at a council meeting, worrying small municipalities would shoulder significant economic burdens.