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August 15, 2013, Toronto – Last week, The Globe and Mail published a column by Margaret Wente with the title, A nation of $100,000 firefighters, in which Wente explored, although not comprehensively or objectively, the reasons behind what she called the “skyrocketing costs” of municipal fire departments across Canada. Wente made some valid points, although they are well hidden within her hyperbolic and accusatory vitriol. How about a little fact checking?

August 15, 2013
By Peter Sells

Topics

August 15, 2013, Toronto – Last week, The Globe and Mail published a column by Margaret Wente with the title, A nation of $100,000 firefighters, in which Wente explored, although not comprehensively or objectively, the reasons behind what she called the “skyrocketing costs” of municipal fire departments across Canada. Wente made some valid points, although they are well hidden within her hyperbolic and accusatory vitriol. How about a little fact checking?

Across Canada, towns and cities are getting hosed by the skyrocketing costs of their fire departments.

Agreed, but annoyed. Costs are indeed going up, but the sarcastic use of the term hosed implies that there is no associated value. Towns and cities may be getting hosed, literally, when they are burning – and the capacity to deliver the hosing costs money in terms of apparatus, equipment, staffing and training.

Thanks to arbitration settlements, your firefighters are the best paid (and possibly the most underworked) guys in town.

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Wente correctly identifies arbitration settlements as the main factor in salary increases, at least in some provinces. Let's look at retention pay as an example of arbitration gone wild. In 2002, the Toronto Police Services Board agreed to retention bonuses of three per cent, six per cent and nine per cent on the salaries of officers who remained in the employ of TPS for eight, 17 and 23 years respectively. This was to address a bona fide problem of officers being hired by TPS, receiving expensive training, and then leaving to other jurisdictions as soon as they achieved first class constable status. No other police service in Ontario, and certainly no fire service, was experiencing a similar exodus to the same degree. Nevertheless, it was cited as precedent in arbitration awards to the Ontario Provincial Police as well as other regional and municipal police services and crossed over to Toronto Fire in the next contract. One difference was the name; Toronto Fire's bonuses are referred to as "recognition pay", perhaps in recognition that there was not a serious problem with retention. Arbitration awards, not taking into account whether there was a retention problem, or considering each municipality's ability to pay, cascaded retention pay across Ontario fire departments in short order. I received recognition pay of six per cent and nine per cent during my last years of employment with TFS. What was I supposed to do, say "No, thanks"?

In her column Wente says wage parity with police drives some of the arbitration awards. How can firefighters be the best paid guys in town, as she claims, if police are paid the same base salary? Add in court time and paid duties, and the cops are bringing home more bacon in most towns big enough to have a municipal constabulary. The underworked comment is, frankly, an insult, especially when coming from a journalist who was the recipient of unspecified disciplinary action by her employer for a 2009 column that did not properly attribute source quotes. “The journalism in this instance did not meet the standards of The Globe and Mail,” editor-in-chief John Stackhouse is quoted as saying in a 2012 story by Globe media reporter Steve Ladurantaye. So, considering that the source has been demonstrated to be professionally lax, the cheap shot means essentially squat.

Firefighters have been getting raises that are twice as high what other public sector workers have been getting, at a time when municipalities are strapped for funds and raises are just a memory for most of us.

Firefighters have been getting higher raises than many other civil servants, but not twice as high. More like 50 per cent higher, which is still significant. However, according to an article on the employment website monster.ca by contributing writer Mark Swartz, raises are not just a memory for most Canadian workers. Swartz cited surveys provided by seven compensation consulting firms and the Conference Board of Canada that predicted an average wage increase of three per cent for 2013 across Canada. This is right in line with the recent arbitration award to Toronto firefighters, which Wente highlights as excessive.

Wente also cites the Owen Sound fire department, where she claims 25 of 29 firefighters were paid more than $100,000 in 2012, without noting that the Owen Sound IAFF local had received back pay from an outstanding contract award in that year. Also, six of the 25 were captains and one was the fire chief, none of whom receive a firefighter’s base salary; that took me only five minutes to verify on the Ontario Ministry of Finance website, by the way Margaret.

For smaller cities, the fire department is typically the largest item in the budget. It accounts for upward of a quarter of their costs.

This may be true for smaller cities, if they are not large enough to maintain their own police force. Otherwise, policing would be a larger budget item. Regardless, if these smaller cities are served by regional or provincial police forces, or the RCMP, tax money is devoted to that purpose; it just may not show up as such on the municipal budget. This time I don’t think Wente is playing a shell game with the facts, it’s more likely she just doesn’t know what she is talking about.

Thanks to modern safety standards, there are very few fires left to fight.

Agreed, and this is a good thing, because thanks to modern building standards and construction methods, the fires that do occur are fought in much more hazardous conditions than in past decades. I don’t need to go into that for this readership – we all know that today’s fires are hotter and grow faster, and today’s building are more susceptible to early collapse.

These days, most fire department calls are medical. To prove that they’re still needed, fire departments have been adding defibrillators and Jaws of Life, and frantically expanding their repertoires to respond to even minor non-fire emergencies.

We have always responded to non-fire emergencies. I doubt Wente could even imagine crawling under a subway car to manually stabilize the head and cervical spine of an unsuccessful suicide. I can still see his face and recall our conversation as we waited for the medics, 25 years ago. He had a toothbrush in his shirt pocket. Why do I remember those details, Margaret? Most fire department calls have been medical since the initiation of tiered response 30-plus years ago. Defibrillators have been a regular operational item for 15 to 20 years in most larger departments, and heavy hydraulic extrication tools go back to the 1970s. Great job, Margaret; you’ve really got your finger on the pulse of this story.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, . . . a consultants’ report said that a merger of fire and EMS could save the city significant money.

Flat out wrong on this one. A 2011 report suggested that Toronto look into whether such a merger would save money. That led to a 2013 report that said clearly “There is little evidence to suggest that a consolidated fire and paramedic service is financially, operationally, or organizationally advantageous in the circumstance where the two organizations are competent.” This was all over the news, just a few weeks ago. How could a competent Toronto columnist have missed that? Or, more to the point, how could Margaret Wente have missed that?

Wente’s headline was A Nation of $100,000 Firefighters, which is clearly an exaggeration. Most firefighters in Canada receive minimal monetary compensation, some receive none at all. I prefer . . .

A nation of 100,000 heroes.

Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory council of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo.


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