By Laura King
Nov. 19, 2015, Niagara Falls, Ont. – I don't think Matt Pegg quite scared the daylights out of delegates to the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC) midterm meeting during his president's address Wednesday morning, but he certainly got their attention with that six-letter word the fire service loves to hate: change.
By a show of hands, about one-third of the 180 chief fire officers in the room will retire within five years. Everyone has a succession plan, right?
Other fear factors?
Government: Liberal majorities in Toronto and Ottawa, which has considerably altered the OAFC's (and CAFC's) government-relations strategy.
The Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM), led, temporarily we're assured, by an OPP inspector whose mandate is to shake things up, rock the boat, clean house, streamline – choose your cliché.
Taxpayers, who are tired of hearing about firefighters sleeping in the halls and having $500,000 trucks respond to medicals. "Is the public love affair with the fire service over?" Pegg asked, rhetorically.
And jet packs. Pegg isn't known for levity, but his PowerPoint slide showing a fire officer in Dubai with a $150,000 jet pack to be used in high-rise fires was certainly an entertaining diversion.
All of which was interesting given the lengthy roundtable sessions Tuesday at which issues such as recruitment-and-retention incentives, platooning in volunteer halls, daytime coverage, adequacy standards (there's a can of worms!), cancer prevention (do your firefighters have two sets of gear?) and myriad labour-relations issues were dissected, discussed, debated and determined to be crucial to maintaining vibrant and healthy departments.
With the focus on doing things differently it was no surprise when interim Fire Marshal Ross Nichols showed up in a suit (not a uniform), backpack slung over his shoulder, spoke for three minutes following a preamble by Matt Torigian, the deputy minister of community safety, then opened the floor to questions.
Interestingly, Torigian acknowledged the chiefs' frustration over the pace of change – or lack thereof – within the OFMEM, and with policies and procedures (such as, I thought, the review of the provincial incident management system as recommended by Elliot Lake Commissioner Paul Belanger). "Bureaucracy," Torigian mused, tends to move slowly.
And while it was rather amusing to have two cops on the stage – Torigian was police chief in Waterloo, Ont. – given the number of fire chiefs in the room who had traded guns for hoses (their phrase, not mine), Nichols and Torigian were frank, knew the issues and the problems, and seemed fully aware of the angst among chief fire officers over standards and training and support and communication from the OFMEM.
Perhaps the 45-minute presentation/Q&A was the feel-good session fire chiefs needed after years of frustration with the OFM, essentially since Bernie Moyle retired in 2006 after 16 years as fire marshal.
There were some blunt comments from the floor – about the mass exodus from the OFMEM, about chaos in the office, the lack of support, the absence of communication.
There were also tough questions – about the status of the Fire Marshal's Public Safety Council, which no one seems to understand ("It's my council," Nichols acknowledged, and promised to deal with it), about communication, which Nichols said would – and already has – changed, about the Ontario Fire College and how to keep it accessible to volunteers given the government's commitment to full cost recovery.
While neither Torigian nor Nichols had many well-developed answers given the fire marshal's matter of weeks on the job, they told fire chiefs what they wanted to hear: they understand the challenges, they are listening, they will work with the OAFC and chiefs across the province.