Sudbury's volunteer firefighters suffering poor morale - survey
The Sudbury Star
 

The city’s volunteer firefighters have reached a breaking point.

A 10-question survey circulated recently by and for volunteer firefighters shows growing dissatisfaction with the work environment, as well as sinking morale and general discontent. The Star obtained a copy of the survey, along with a letter sent to councillors, from a member of council. All identifying information was redacted before the documents were shared.

Most concerning, the survey indicated 64.5 per cent of volunteers are considering or have thought about quitting the fire service.

Morale is quite low. More than 71 per cent of respondents said they do not feel “appreciated, wanted and respected by the current fire service administration.” Only 13 per cent feel their efforts are appreciated.

About 24 per cent of respondents indicated morale amongst volunteer firefighters is terrible, while 34.6 per cent qualified it as poor. Twenty-seven per cent of volunteers said morale is fair and 12 per cent viewed it as good. Only 1.9 per cent of respondents qualified morale as excellent.

While about 200 individuals are currently volunteering as firefighters, 107 replied to the survey. Anonymity was assured.

“The average participation for an employee survey is between 25-60 per cent. At nearly 54 per cent, the survey participation is on the higher end of the average, which shows the importance of the results,” organizers said. “We are pleased so many volunteers took the time to complete the survey. It is our opinion that participation was so high due to our promise of anonymity. With volunteers being disciplined for speaking their concerns publicly, many were relieved names would not be revealed in the presentation of results.”

Approximately 72 per cent of respondents said they believe the relationship between volunteers and full-time firefighters is acrimonious at best.

Volunteers were especially pessimistic about the management team. Nearly 85 per cent of respondents said they do not believe “the current fire service administration has the best interests of volunteers in mind.” More than 76 per cent (76.64 per cent) said they do not trust the current administration; only 3.7 per cent said there is trust between the two groups. It should be noted 19.6 per cent chose not to answer that question.

“The results are clear and speak for themselves, volunteers are currently very unhappy with the treatment they have been receiving,” organizers said. “The information revealed is troubling. You have already heard from the fire management team regarding their opinion of the current status of volunteers. This survey is our chance for you to hear from volunteers about how they are feeling.”

Organizers said the results contrast sharply with what “the chief reported during recent council meetings.”

When asked if they feel comfortable bringing concerns about the volunteer fire service to the platoon chief, 68 per cent of respondents said no. Only 24 per cent replied yes.

“We have seen volunteer numbers be reduced significantly and we believe this can be easily improved with your help,” organizers said. “Volunteers in general are a hardworking group, often very committed to their communities. We want the chance to fix these issues before it’s too late. Many councillors have stated the city couldn’t afford to lose their volunteer firefighters. We believe this is true. We need your help and we need it now. Please act before it’s too late.”

Volunteers had several ideas to improve the fire service, as well as the relationship between career and volunteer firefighters, and management. Among their top recommendations were better training and equipment; better treatment and improved communication; a real effort to retain volunteers; and the elimination of annual physical fitness testing. Several volunteers also commented that the city needs to revise its dispatch mechanisms. They said the closest trucks should always be sent to incidents, and career trucks should not be sent to volunteer areas unless it is truly warranted.

There was also good news. Volunteers want to work with the city to improve the working environment and the professional relationship. More than 92 per cent of those who answered the survey said they would like to see a committee established that would enable volunteers to speak directly to council.

“After reviewing this information, we are requesting that council establish a liaison committee made up of volunteers and city councillors so that council could have a direct impact on improving this dire situation,” organizers wrote to council. “Urgent action is needed and it is clear the majority of volunteers do not believe the current fire management team can or has ambition to fix the issues. Our hope is the parties who form this committee will work collaboratively and earnestly to find meaningful solutions to the situation we currently find ourselves in.”

The results of the survey were sent previously to members of council so The Star emailed all councillors, as well as Mayor Brian Bigger, seeking commentary. Only one councillor replied.

Despite the fact several wards in Greater Sudbury — including Wards 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9 — rely on volunteer firefighters, only Ward 3 Coun. Gerry Montpellier offered to share his thoughts.

“Volunteers dedicate their time to our community, and it’s obviously not for the dollars,” Montpellier said. “Why they’re demoralized mostly, is due to the condescending nature of their superiors. It comes from the full-time ranks — the management. Who would not be demoralized by a city — an employer — who endorses warfare. I have documented proof they (the International Association of Fire Fighters) wanted to declare (the volunteers) rivals.”

Montpellier said he is not surprised by the survey results “in any way, shape or form.” He said volunteers are treated worse “than third-class citizens.” He does not understand why the poor treatment, but he said his “heart is broken.”

“It’s an American union attacking a Canadian union and the employer accepted that,” Montpellier said. “What company would accept that?”

The city said it knows nothing about the survey, but it continues to work collaboratively with its volunteer firefighters in order to resolve concerns.

“The city has not commissioned an employee survey related to our volunteer firefighter employees. The city has not been informed by CLAC that they have conducted a survey of their members,” Kelli Sheppard, a spokesperson for the city, said. “The survey was not sent directly to any city staff member by the organizer. We value our volunteer firefighters and their feedback on the workplace. If there are concerns amongst any city employee, we have several methods to resolve them. These resolution processes are detailed in the employee handbook, respective collective bargaining agreements and human resource policies, which are accessible to all City of Greater Sudbury staff.”

The Star was unable to reach the Christian Labour Association of Canada, the union representing volunteer firefighters in Sudbury, for comment.

 

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