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Dec. 14, 2011 – The fire service in Ontario is more complex than it is in some other provinces. I’ve had numerous calls and e-mails since I blogged about and reported on the Meaford trial last week, many from fire personnel in other provinces looking for an explanation of the charges and the potential outcome. The crux of the issue, as many understand it, is twofold: performance assessment and an uneven playing field.

December 14, 2011 
By Laura King

Before we get into some heavy lifting, congrats to fellow bloggers Tim Beebe and Jen Mabee.

Tim is heading south, to a new job in January as program manager for the pre-service fire program at Confederation College in Thunder Bay. Sounds crazy, I know. But Thunder Bay is indeed south of Upsala, Ont., and Thunder Bay’s gain is most certainly Uspsala’s loss.

Presumably, there’ll be less stress running a college program for impressionable young adults who think they want to be firefighters (yes, you’re reading the sarcasm) than running an under-resourced volunteer fire department in – as Tim would say – the middle of nowhere! Best of luck, Tim. Keep us posted.

Jen Mabee, whose Dispatches blog regularly brightens my day – if nothing else for Jen’s ability to laugh at herself (we could all use a healthy dose of her self-deprecation) – and whose take on the volunteer fire service is refreshing, is the new assistant director for Ontario for the Canadian Volunteer Fire Services Association.

As Jen says, “It’s a volunteer position, but exciting nonetheless.” You know the saying, if you want something done ask a busy person . . . Case in point. Way to go Jen!

Speaking of blogs and bloggers . . .

I’ve had a number of incarnations as a journalist. And over a quarter century, I’ve had politicians yell at me, parents diss me outside court hearings involving their kids, irate readers challenge my political analysis and more. I’ve seen bodies bagged at murder scenes and horrible fires, occasionally with emotional relatives hurling invective my way, just for being there.
It comes with the turf and through it all, I’ve developed a thick skin.

I respect unconditionally readers’ rights to their opinions about what’s written here. We don’t have to agree, and I welcome dissenting viewpoints; contrary thinking often leads to creative problem solving.

The blog entries and news story last week from the trial in Meaford have generated a lot of phone calls and several submitted comments, which is great. Debate of important issues is fundamental to a free society. And so is accountability.

As a matter of policy, we post comments only if we know the identity of the author (I see the e-mail address in the back end of the website, but sometimes authors choose not to provide a name or e-mail address).

Why? For the same reason my name is on my posts: credibility and integrity. I’m responsible for what I say in the magazine or here, in the blog. You are responsible for your comments.

Please disagree with me or any of our writers or bloggers if you wish. We welcome it, and we love a good debate.

But please include your name and a legitimate e-mail address.

We put our names on what we write. So should you.

More on Meaford – but give me a minute to get there.

Before I became editor of Fire Fighting in Canada almost five years ago, I covered Canadian business news for a New York-based web newspaper – mergers and acquisitions, bankruptcies, venture capital, private equity and the like. (Yes, it was often dry and boring, and no, I didn’t get to go to New York.)

The Canadian stuff was fairly straightforward – some of it learned during stints on the business desk at the Ottawa Citizen – but venturing into cross-border deals, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission proceedings and Chapter 11 filings was new territory for me at the time, and the learning curve was steep. (You can read more about lifelong learning in Peter Sells’ blog here.)

It was, however, a breeze compared to learning about the fire service. The acronyms alone are mind boggling, but understanding fire-service policies – and politics – is the real challenge.

The fire service in Ontario is more complex than it is in some other provinces, with multi-tiered local governments and separate provincial ministries whose mandates impact the fire service (labour, community safety and correctional services – which includes the Office of the Fire Marshal – and the ministries of transportation and natural resources).

Which brings us back to the trial on the charges against the Municipality of Meaford, Ont., and its fire department. I’ve had numerous calls and e-mails since I blogged about and reported on the trial last week, many from fire personnel in other provinces looking for an explanation of the charges and the potential outcome.

So, some details. (Get a coffee and settle in . . . it’s a bit of an epistle.)

The crux of the issue, as many understand it and have explained to me this week, is twofold.

First, performance assessment.

Human resources types will tell you that employees should never be surprised in a performance assessment – if their work needs improvement, they should have known that through regular feedback, guidance and mentoring leading up to the performance review. It’s a reasonable policy that puts the onus on managers to do their jobs well and to properly and professionally guide their employees.

In Ontario, the Ministry of Labour issues guidance notes that advise departments on firefighter health and safety on the fire ground and in training. The guidance notes are based on advice from a committee – the Section 21 committee (because that’s the section of the Occupational Health and Safety Act under which the committee exists), which comprises representatives from labour and management, including the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs.

The guidance notes are issued publicly by the ministry, and the implementation of the recommendations within the guidance notes is left to interpretation by individual departments and chief officers.

One issue in the Meaford case is the validity of the guidance notes on the establishment of accountability, command and RIT. According to Meaford’s lawyer, Norm Keith, although the ministry views the guidance notes as accepted practices, they are not law and are not binding. Indeed, as it was explained to me yesterday, the guidance notes all say that departments “should” do such and such, rather than “shall” do XYZ, because “shall” is reserved for legislation, and the guidance notes are meant to be accepted practices rather than laws. Confused yet?

Further muddying things for fire departments, the Ministry of Labour does not supervise, inspect, check on, assess or critique fire departments to help chiefs and officers determine whether they are properly following the recommendations in the guidance notes, or help them improve their practices if they’re not up to snuff.

So, according to many fire officers I spoke with this week, departments have no way of knowing if their fire-ground operations and practices meet the intent of the guidance notes, or if their procedures need work. Until something goes wrong – which may be a direct result of a fire chief or officer misunderstanding a guidance note, or a department not having the resources to properly meet its intent. In which case, the ministry issues a compliance note and/or lays charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

That’s one interpretation. A dissenting view is that fire chiefs are well paid and well trained to understand and implement the guidance notes (and they get a lot of information about the guidance notes through their associations and the Section 21 committee), and it’s the chief’s role – not that of untrained Ministry of Labour inspectors – to evaluate specialized fire-ground operations such as the establishment of rapid intervention teams.

The second issue is what some see as an uneven playing field.

Just as NFPA standards do not differentiate among volunteer, composite or career departments, many in the fire service believe that guidance notes do not consider the resources allotted to small, rural departments versus large, urban departments.

Several people I spoke with this week provided a version of the following scenario: A volunteer department in tiny Upsala, Ont., for example (not to pick on Chief Tim Beebe but he’s already waded into this issue through his blog), is expected to meet the same standards and follow the same guidance-notes procedures for interior fire fighting or interior rescue at a structure fire as the 3,000-strong Toronto Fire Services.

True. Sort of. Upsala, or Meaford or Listowel – where two volunteer firefighters died last March – or any number of smaller, rural fire departments in Ontario do not have the same resources or manpower as Toronto or London or Ottawa and, therefore, the intent of the guidance notes is that those departments should not attempt the same kinds of responses.

The problem, as I see it, is convincing firefighters, municipal councils and citizens in those smaller, less-equipped departments that responses to structure fires can not include interior attack or rescue.

Conundrum? A need to reprogram the culture of fire response? Absolutely.

As for the charges, Meaford and its fire department are charged by the Ministry of Labour under section 25 (2) (h) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which
requires the employer to take all reasonable precautions to ensure employees’ safety.

As we’ve reported, the prosecution alleges that Meaford failed to establish an accountability system, a command post and a rapid intervention team. The RIT allegation was challenged in court last week by a defence witness, who testified that a RIT was in place. Not all the details have been made public surrounding the rescue of two firefighters who entered Reed’s Restaurant to search for one of the owners, ran low on air and had to be rescued. The trial will determine whether the processes and procedures that led to that situation need reviewing.

Meantime, while Justice of the Peace Thomas Stinson mulls the evidence presented by the prosecution, and considers the defence motion for a directed verdict of acquittal based on the defence submission that the Crown did not present enough evidence to proceed with the trial, many in the Ontario fire service say they are frustrated with the situation and question the role of the OFM in the prosecution’s case against the Meaford and District Fire Department.

Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek declined to speak to us about the matter, preferring to wait until Stinson makes his decision – a fair call.

Tim Beckett, president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, again cautioned chief officers – as he did when the charges were laid – that regardless of the outcome of the Meaford trial, the onus is on them to ensure that their departments can meet the expectations of their councils and residents.

“Firefighter health and safety is of utmost importance to the OAFC and critical to the fire-services goal to save property and protect lives and the environment,” Beckett said in an e-mail.

“The OAFC continues to monitor the proceedings in the Meaford case. The outcome(s) may have a significant impact on firefighter training programs to meet health and safety requirements and, in return, may have impacts to the service delivery levels for municipalities. The OAFC is prepared to take the necessary actions to ensure that Ontario's fire service is aware of any possible impacts that may result.

“We encourage municipalities and fire chiefs – regardless of the outcome – to be proactive and review the level of fire protection services that are delivered within their jurisdictions, including ensuring that the training, equipment and personnel resources are suitable for the level of service to be provided.”

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