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August 19, 2013
By Laura King


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Aug. 19, 2013, Toronto - I wasn’t going to weigh in on the recent Globe and Mail column that has frustrated and angered a good many Canadian firefighters, but it’s against my nature to keep quiet, so, some thoughts that may challenge what appears to be the conventional thinking . . .

Aug. 19, 2013, Toronto – I wasn’t going to weigh in on the recent Globe and Mail column
that has frustrated and angered a good many Canadian firefighters, but
it’s against my nature to keep quiet, so, some thoughts that may
challenge what appears to be the conventional thinking . . .

In her column A nation of $100,000 Firefighters, Margaret Wente highlights the fact that some Ontario municipalities – Toronto in particular – are having trouble paying the salaries of career firefighters (and police officers).

The issue is that municipalities can't afford the salaries, or, more accurately, they can barely afford them given current tax rates, staffing models and response levels.

Our own blogger Peter Sells noted in a methodical desconstruction of Wente's arguments that the columnist had several facts wrong; she did – and that’s inexcusable. Peter’s blog is fair (I edited it to make sure!) and is worth a read.

Peter concluded his rebuttal of Wente’s musings by noting that the majority of firefighters in Canada – the almost 80 per cent who are truly volunteers or are paid-on call – receive minimal compensation; he prefers, as a headline, A nation of 100,000 heroes.

My Twitter link to Peter’s blog was retweeted dozens of times as fire-service members embraced Peter's knockdown of Wente's column. A handful of readers commented on Peter’s blog (scroll to the bottom of the blog to see the comments), wholeheartedly agreed with him, and noted that most Canadian firefighters are volunteers who are paid little or nothing. This is true, but Wente does not target volunteer firefighters and the fact that most Canadian firefighters are dedicated people who train in their spare time and receive minimal compensation is not the issue.

Whether all the facts were dead on, and regardless of the awkward presentation, Wente has a point: if career firefighters in Ontario want to believe otherwise then they are sleeping through an alarm.

Last year, the Ontario town of Brockville accepted a consultant's report that recommends that it move to a composite service from a 100-per-cent career department. Why? Because the town says it can't afford a career service any more as its budget creaks under the weight of arbitration decisions that have no connection to or accountability with municpalities’ ability to pay.
Brockville is also considering disbanding it's police department and contracting out to the Ontario Provincial Police; the same basic issues are at play.

In Belleville, Ont., town council was frothing mad over fire costs at a March budget meeting. Arbitrator awards, retro pay, overtime . . . the cocktail of costs had some first-class firefighters earning more than the then former chief's 2012 salary of $128,500.

There are 31 career fire departments in Ontario – the other 400-plus are composite or volunteer. You'd be hard pressed to find a municipal council in any of those 31 municipalities that isn't worried about this issue. (There were more than 700 online comments posted to Wente’s column – almost all of them agreeing with her assessment that career firefighters are paid too much.)

While arbitrators award nice salaries to police and then give firefighters parity – a recent arbitration ruling gave Toronto firefighters more money than the union had asked for – there is no bottomless bucket of cash to fund fire or EMS or police any more than there is for parks or libraries or clean water. The potential results of continued salary increases? Layoffs. Fewer firefighters on trucks.

Everyone loves firefighters, Wente is right about that.


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