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February 16, 2012
By Laura King


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Feb. 16, 2012 – Sometimes, because of its sheer size and population, things happen in Ontario that are important to the rest of the Canadian fire service. As Laura King writes in her editor’s blog, the Drummond report on Ontario’s precarious financial situation, and other political issues, is likely to weigh heavily on the minds of the province’s fire chiefs.

Feb. 16, 2012 – We try, in our coverage of the Canadian fire service, to ensure national representation – from coast to coast to coast.

But sometimes, because of its sheer size and population, things happen here in the centre of the universe Ontario that are important, warrant coverage.
What happens here may come to your province and may impact your fire service.

Here are three examples. Stay with me even if you’re on Fogo Island or in Fort St. John – it’s a worthwhile read! (Or, if you really can’t stomach an entire blog about Ontario fire-service politics, click here to read Peter Sells Flashpoint blog about the mess in Corner Brook – see, national coverage at its best!)

Google the words Drummond report today and you’ll get oh, about 1,000 results. If you’re outside Ontario you may not know, or care, about yesterday’s 541-page report by economist Don Drummond, which contains 362 recommendations that are supposed to save Ontario from further destruction at the hands of the Liberal government that voters (and pro-McGuinty firefighters) keep electing. As the National Post put it this morning:

“It’s not a pretty sight. The Liberals’ record as outlined by Mr. Drummond’s painfully honest assessment is abysmal. The future is bleak (when the best the apologists can come up with is: “We’re nowhere near as bad as Greece,” you know you’re in trouble). The premier’s most cherished programs are unaffordable. His economic projections are fantasy. His spending record is irresponsible, his balanced budget deadline implausible, his claim we can afford it all is unsupportable.”

(You can read the rest of the Post’s adjective-riddled commentary here – go ahead, just come back and finish reading this!)

As blogger Tim Beebe so often asks, what’s this got to do with the fire service? More than you might think at first glance. Recommendations in at least eight sections of the Drummond report have the potential to change the way fire is funded or contracts are negotiated or firefighters and other emergency responders do their jobs.

Many Ontario municipalities froze or cut fire budgets for 2012, or opted to ignore fire-service staffing and response standards, or told fire chiefs not to ask for new hires until 2015 (no kidding – you can read about it here). Maybe Toronto Fire Chief Bill Stewart saw the writing on the wall when he announced his retirement earlier this week.

Chapter 1 alone of the Drummond report calls for a reduction of 2.4 per cent in provincial program spending across the board including, presumably, the Office of the Fire Marshal and, therefore, the Ontario Fire College, which affects training.

Chapter 5 – on health care – recommends that Ontario adopt the Nova Scotia model under which emergency medical technicians provide home care when not on emergency calls. This, the report says, requires the integration of municipal and provincial funding structures. Here’s the clincher. Recommendation 5-105 says: “Do not let concerns about successor rights stop amalgamations that make sense and are critical to successful reform.” Go ask a union rep what that means (we don’t have enough time or space to get into it!) but the words turf wars come to mind.

Chapter 12, on infrastructure, real estate and electricity, recommends that ministries pay market prices for use of government real estate. Which means that the fire service is likely getting a break on properties such as the Ontario Fire College. Changing that practice will likely translate – again – into higher costs for training.

Still with training, Chapter 14 recommends that the province examine integration opportunities and consolidate, where possible, public safety training in policing, fire services and correctional services that are delivered through their respective colleges. ‘Nuff said.

Chapter 15 is full of recommendations about essential services, interest arbitration and successor rights (again). Recommendation 15-10: “The government should facilitate a voluntary movement to centralized bargaining for municipalities – particularly in relation to police and firefighting bargaining.” This could have an impact on everything from negotiations about the 24-hour shift (currently in arbitration in Ajax) to pay rates.

There’s a whole section on pensions and public-sector benefits in chapter 19 about reducing benefits rather than increasing contribution rates, and chapter 20 deals with fiscal accountability for municipalities and reducing provincial payments to municipalities.

As if fire chiefs didn’t have enough to worry about (see below – there’s more!).

You can read the whole Drummond report at the Government of Ontario website at www.ontario.ca – although when I tried to do so this morning the site was down – read into that what you like.

(I’d like to take credit for deciphering the report but that honour goes to Barry Malmsten, executive director of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs. Thanks Barry, for the insight!)

Friday night at about 7:30 p.m. I got an e-mail that had been sent to fire chiefs from the OFM, with an attachment titled Care Occupancies.

The four-page document explains the differences among care occupancies, residential occupancies and care and treatment occupancies, and says factors that determine the classification of these types of facilities include the ability to live independently and the level of care required by the residents.

There’s no reason given for the clarification, or for the timing of the e-mail – Friday evening, well after the OFM office had closed. But the e-mail set BlackBerrys buzzing.

In the three years since a fire at a home for seniors in Orillia caused four deaths, the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs has been advocating for sprinklers in care occupancies. The province – which owns several of these types of homes – has dragged its heels despite promises of public consultation and indications of support.

Essentially, in the wake of the Muskoka Heights fire in Orillia, the OFM made it clear to fire chiefs and fire-prevention officers that the onus is on them to ensure that fire-safety plans for these types of occupancies are accurate and enforceable; it was also made clear that chiefs would be liable in the case of inadequate or unenforceable fire-safety plans.

In other words, if a fire chief or fire-prevention officer were to approve a fire-safety plan that wasn’t up to snuff (because, for example, the owner of the home balked at additional measures, which usually mean additional costs), and then there were fatalities in a fire, the chief/officer would be held accountable.

Enter Oliver House, a home in Caledon, Ont., for 50 people living with chronic mental illness. The home had come up for re-inspection in the fall and, as I understand it, based on the guidance from the OFM, the fire chief and fire prevention officer recommended some changes to the fire-safety plan to ensure protection for residents.

Since then, the OFM has reclassified the home as a residential occupancy rather than a care occupancy (you can see our December story on the reclassification here) but has declined to comment publicly on the matter. Those I’ve talked to this week say the process seems a bit backwards – why not fine-tune the definitions first then direct the fire chiefs on dealing with these occupancies?

Caledon Fire Chief Brad Bigrigg and Fire Prevention Officer Mark Wallace say they worry that 50 people can’t safety evacuate the home with just one staff member on hand at night. They want additional supervision and an amendment to the fire-safety plan. All of which seems to have prompted the communique from the OFM.

The memo says the OFM is working with the OAFC “to develop a guideline for the assessment of staffing levels in care occupancies for the purpose of emergency evacuation under fire conditions.”

Which is a good thing.

As one fire-service observer said about the timing of the communique, “all this is doing is throwing in more confusion. The dilemma becomes when you’re being held accountable but aren’t being given the tools to exercise that authority.”

Lastly, another e-mail, this one from a Hotmail address of someone connected to the Elora Firefighters Association, encouraging us to look into and report on a lawsuit against the county of Township of Centre Wellington and its insurer over the denial of life-insurance benefits to the family of a firefighter who died in July.

The association sent out a press release outlining the confusion over life insurance benefits. You can see the press release here, a story from the local paper here, and Fire Chief Brad Patton’s response here.

We’re waiting for the municipality to file its statement of defence and will then report on the issue more thoroughly.

If you’re not completely spent after absorbing all that fire-politics, take five minutes (yep, just five – you’ll see why!) and read Jen Mabee’s blog to remind you why you do what you do.

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