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Comment: Different volunteering dilemmas

On Nov.1, four volunteer firefighters in Orangeville, Ont., resigned from their positions after they were pressured by their union, the Mississauga branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters. The firefighters are so-called two hatters; they volunteer in Orangeville, where they live, and they work as professional firefighters in other municipalities.

December 12, 2007
By Laura King


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On Nov.1, four volunteer firefighters in Orangeville, Ont., resigned from their positions after they were pressured by their union, the Mississauga branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters. The firefighters are so-called two hatters; they volunteer in Orangeville, where they live, and they work as professional firefighters in other municipalities.

While this issue played itself out in densely populated southwestern Ontario, Chief Phillip Publicover of the Blandford Volunteer Fire Department in Nova Scotia lamented the lack of volunteers in small towns after revealing the sorry state of his own department and others nearby.

“I can take you to fire stations and show you a wall of pictures of their active members, and you’ll think you’re looking at a seniors’ club,” he told CBC News.

Unbelievably, when a fire alarm went off in March in the home of an elderly couple, no one from the Blandford Volunteer Fire Department responded. And in August, a Blandford home was gutted after a fire broke out in the afternoon and just three firefighters answered their pagers.

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Meanwhile, Orangeville Fire Chief Andy McIntosh, who is in the frustrating position of having plenty of available volunteers he can no longer use, called the union’s stand “absolutely disgusting.”  

The Orangeville firefighters who resigned brought a wealth of training and the benefit of a professional experience to their volunteer positions.

“Not only are these unions putting the citizens of Orangeville at risk, but our own firefighters as well. In a day and a half, we lost 46 years of fire fighting experience, along with the department’s training division,” McIntosh told the Orangeville Citizen.
By mid-November, seven Orangeville volunteer firefighters with a total of 80 years experience had resigned after receiving letters from the union.

The union says two hatters are violating the union constitution and can lose their union memberships. It argues that full-time firefighters who also volunteer might put themselves and others at risk if they end up at volunteer calls between full-time shifts and then show up to work tired and stressed out. Another concern is that volunteers could be exposed to toxins linked to cancer, and there could be jurisdictional concerns if worker’s compensation claims were filed.

The Orangeville situation was nowhere close to being resolved at press time and the Ontario Fire Marshal had been asked to help settle the issue. In Nova Scotia, fire marshal Bob Cormier is trying to find solutions to the volunteer shortage. One proposal is to offer volunteer training at different times so people working outside the community might be better able to volunteer.

Meanwhile, Orangeville town council hired a lawyer to file a grievance with the local union because the town believes two-hatters are allowed under a contract signed earlier this year with the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association.

We’ll keep you posted on both issues. Meantime, for a fiery perspective on the two-hatter story, turn to Peter Sells’ FlashPoint column.


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