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Chief suggests removing “volunteers” from firefighters

March 31, 2022
By Connie Tabbert, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader

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Mar. 31, Whitewater Region, Ont., – There is no official recognition of a change in the name of the Whitewater Region Volunteer Fire Department, but its own chief believes the name volunteer is no longer relevant.

Fire Chief Jonathan McLaren addressed council at its March 16 meeting about the pending mandatory firefighter certification required for all firefighters, whether volunteer or not. While mandatory training of a 100-hour course has been required for many years, he noted, what’s being mandated now is the level and certification that is required.

He provided a report to council, recommending it be received for information purposes and for direction from council to prepare for the pending mandatory firefighter certification. After his presentation, council agreed to his recommendation.

“Our fire department is a full-service department and we need to train our firefighters to Level 1 and 2, hazmat and officers have to get their Level 1,” he said. “We have four years to do that, which is definitely attainable.”

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There is also an additional two years to earn the technical certification for the rescue stations, he added.

Chief McLaren told council this training can be accomplished in a few different ways, especially now that the fire college in Gravenhurst has closed its doors.

“With a department of our size, the number of people we have and the level of expertise that exists within already, we’re going to pursue a learning contract for Level 1 as well as a company officer’s course,” he said. “Both will be taught in-house and there is a $65 enrollment fee per firefighter.”

The Level 1 course for Whitewater firefighters begins at the end of March while officer training is expected to begin in April, he said.

In terms of firefighter commitment, the firefighter Level 1 is approximately 150 hours, split evenly between theory and practical, he said. Theory will be online so they can each work at their pace while practical can be done with firefighter instructors from within the department, he added.

Level 2 is about 80 hours, again, split evenly between theory and practical, he said.

The fee will allow the fire marshal’s office to track who has accomplished what and administer the testing at the end, since it is that office that will provide instructors and proctors for both events, he said.

“The financial implications are not going to be staggering, I believe,” Chief McLaren said. “The enrollment fee is the most obvious. There will be a little bit of extra training on things we didn’t emphasize in the past, but it won’t be overwhelming.”

In the past firefighters would attend the now-closed firefighters’ college, which was nine days of in-person training plus an additional online portion. The cost was $1,200 per firefighter along with travel expenses back and forth.

“We usually try and do those courses on weekends, so it was people giving up three long weekends just to take the course,” he said. “With the firefighters’ college closed, there is no longer free accommodation or food, so there’s those costs as well.”

The hazardous material operations level is still under discussion, as it has not been emphasized in the past, so how to facilitate that training is still in question, Chief McLaren said.

“The only hurdle we face with this is a little bit of administrative work, actually a fair bit of administrative work, and the fact we still lack a facility to do some of this training,” he said. “This has come up in the past and remains a priority for fire service.”

Mayor Mike Moore, a former deputy-fire chief for Whitewater Region, said this level of mandatory certification of firefighters has been ongoing since 2017. However, a provincial election occurred and it was cancelled – and now another provincial election takes place this June. He noted it’s been about 20 years since it became mandatory for the 100-hour course.

“Who’s to say if this carries on again?” he questioned. “It’s discouraging they start something and never finish. This isn’t the first time for this type of discussion.”

Mayor Moore also questioned if this means “we are going towards doing away with volunteer.”

Chief McLaren replied in the positive, saying, “That verbage needs to end. There is no difference between volunteer firefighters and full-time volunteers as far as recommendations for service or the level of training that is required. It’s really just the remuneration factor. Being called part-time and full-time is probably a more accurate description.”

When questioned by Reeve Cathy Regier if fire departments throughout the county could work together for the certification, Chief McLaren said there is some room for working together, adding he thought Whitewater, being a larger department, might be able to take the lead.

He noted a minimum number of students will be required per course and there are some smaller fire departments that might not reach that, so they could be put in with other departments.

“If our recruitment goes as it has in the past, with 10 to 15 hired each year to deal with attrition, retirements and things like that, we would have room to take on a few of these members,” he said. “They could bring in instructors to help. There is definitely room for collaboration and hopefully this brings some on.”

Mayor Moore questioned if the county is coming up with the training facility, since that has been discussed in the past.

There is currently nothing in the works, Chief McLaren said, and there may have to be involvement with a private enterprise.

Township CAO Robert Tremblay advised council there are some fire chiefs kicking and screaming about the new mandatory regulations, adding he thought he and Chief McLaren are of the mind this is inevitable.

“We want to keep our firefighters safe, which means they have adequate training,” he said.

It’s better they spend more time training than responding to bad things, but it’s great when they need to be engaged that they are fully equipped to do so, he stated.

Included in the package was a resolution that was passed unanimously by Bonnechere Valley Township stating it has many concerns regarding the proposed Ontario regulation, listing six of them, along with four recommendations, including delay of the required certification.

Chief McLaren said the Whitewater Region Fire Department is in a favourable position to follow the requirements of the pending legislation, but there remains the challenge of training to those standards without a training facility.

A report back on a training site will occur as part of the 2023 budget, he said.

“These requirements will add to the workload of training and administration staff of the department,” Chief McLaren said. “However, this is a huge step ahead for the fire department, the municipality and most importantly, the clients we serve.”