Fire re-ignites two-hatter issue
By KAREN BEST
The two-hatter issue, simmering on the back burner for close to a year now, is back.
By KAREN BEST
Ontario Fire Marshal Bernie Moyle and Fred LeBlanc, president of the OPFFA.
The two-hatter issue, simmering on the back burner for close to a year now, is back. And it has been stirred up as the result of a fire in a small community in southwestern Ontario. Around 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 20, 2005, combustible materials on a stove erupted into flames in a home located at 2276 Line 34 in Shakespeare. Within weeks, the blaze re-ignited Ontario’s bitter debate on two-hatters.
Within three minutes of the 9-1-1 call, three volunteer fire fighters were on scene. Two former members remained at home; they didn’t want to lose their full-time jobs with the City of Stratford Fire Department.
In those first minutes, the former two-hatters would have increased the response personnel level by 80 per cent, said the fire chief of the volunteer department.
Fire fighters from another Perth East Fire Department station 20 minutes away had to be called, and when they arrived on scene it brought the total on scene to 17. But was it enough, in time? In this incident, flames burned through the roof and the house sustained smoke and water damage with the loss estimated at $50,000.
It was tough for the former two-hatters to stay at home while a neighbour’s home was burning, said Perth East Fire Chief Darrell Reis.
They had recently resigned from the Perth East Fire Department due to formal association charges for acting as volunteer fire fighters and due to pressure from their Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA) local, said Reis. Another full-time fire fighter, who was a captain with Perth East, resigned from another station.
One fire fighter offered to fight the charge but stress played havoc on his personal and professional life and he resigned his volunteer position at the end of 2005. Around the same time as the Shakespeare charges, two-hatter warnings or charges were issued to five or six City of Ottawa fire fighters.
It’s so disturbing that the union will take such a difficult stand on what their own members are doing at home, said Reis. Virtually all full-time fire fighters have part-time jobs and some of them are risky, like roofing, he pointed out. Using health and safety concerns to rationalize targeting two-hatters is fear mongering, he said. “It’s crap,” he added, his frustration boiling over.
Like his former volunteers, Reis was frustrated with the OPFFA interference with fire response in his county. When full-time fire fighters in Ontario are found in contravention of Article XV, Section 3 of the union’s constitution, their jobs are at risk. This section allows charges against members who also serve as volunteer fire fighters. If they are ejected from the OPFFA, which represents all municipal Ontario full-time fire fighters, they cannot work as a full-time fire fighter in the province. This labour provision is enshrined in the Ontario Fire Protection and Prevention Act.
Incensed with this barrier to contributing to community safety, Reis contacted the local Member of Provincial Parliament, Wellington-Waterloo MPP Ted Arnott and Ontario Fire Marshal Bernie Moyle.
OFM working group found no immediate threat
In response, Moyle asked fire chiefs of the affected departments to submit impact statements. Then he struck a working group of OFM staff and others familiar with the two-hatter issue. The dozen participants looked into details in each case and concluded that Moyle was not in a position to declare a threat to public safety in any of the affected communities.
In the Shakespeare case, the former two-hatters were at home but at another time, they might not have been, the fire marshal noted. In a volunteer area, daytime responses can be difficult to staff and more fire fighters are available to respond on nights and weekends, he pointed out. If necessary, a multiple station response, as occurred in Shakespeare, can bring enough out, he added.
If a large number of two-hatters were forced to resign in a specific community, a reduction in fire protection could occur, and such a situation could be identified as a threat to public safety, said Moyle.
While accepting these recent cases as benign, the fire marshal remained concerned. “What’s happening is a slow phasing out, eroding of two-hatters,” opined Moyle. A couple of years ago there was a lot of activity with union charges but it has been quiet lately with sporadic cases showing up across the province, he noted.
Moyle would like to see the issue resolved. “My position is no one should have to lose their job for volunteering in small communities. What harm is it doing? It won’t hurt the union,” he said. Two-hatting may be an appropriate union concern where a municipality should consider hiring full-time fire fighters, he conceded. Small communities cannot afford to do so, he added.
“I strongly support legislation and government laws to protect double hatters … they do make a valuable contribution to these small areas. There’s no question about it,” he continued.
Despite his conviction, Moyle did not believe legislation would happen unless a large number of two-hatters resigned. Because the Ontario government does not want to interfere with bargaining units, the issue is at a stalemate, he concluded.
Moyle understands the frustration of two-hatters forced to quit their volunteer service. When he was the fire chief for the former City of York (now part of Toronto), he spent over seven years volunteering at the Palgrave station in the Town of Caledon Fire Department. “It was a great learning experience and I contributed a lot to the fire department,” he said.
In Reis’s experience, volunteer and full-time fire fighters can have a great partnership. Volunteers go into full-time jobs and bring added knowledge and training back to their community stations. In Stratford, volunteers worked with full-time fire fighters to train them on water relays and portable pumps.
Public are the losers
Even though the two-hatter impact made it into local newspapers, Reis said, “The general public does not understand and they are the ones that are suffering.” The Perth East department lost two captains and an experienced fire fighter.
Between them, they have 40 years of experience with fire services including their full-time jobs, he pointed out.
After Reis raised the issue, other fire chiefs called to express concern about going public with two-hatter issues. He found that the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, the Fire Fighters Association of Ontario and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario wanted to keep the issue from resurfacing. Everybody is trying to object as quietly as possible to avoid further charges in communities, he observed.
Reis won’t apologize for being vocal because he is taking a preventative stand. “It would be really unfortunate that someone dies because of this,” he said.
MPP wants rights protected
Ted Arnott is determined to protect public safety by protecting the right of full-time fire fighters to volunteer in their home communities. In December, he reintroduced his private member’s bill, “Volunteer Fire Fighters Employment Protection.”
If passed, the bill would amend the Ontario Fire Protection and Prevention Act to prevent an association from forcing an employer to refrain from hiring a person who is or will be a volunteer fire fighter as well. An association would not be able to act in an arbitrary or discriminating manner against a two-hatter. If the proposed amendment is contravened, two-hatters could take their cases to the Ontario Labour Relations Board.
Last fall Arnott met with OPFFA leaders and learned they were very firm about phasing out two-hatters. “The bill is still needed,” said Arnott. Even as the union continued to attempt to force two-hatters to quit their volunteer jobs, there was a need for them to strengthen small community fire departments, he stated.
“I’m trying to essentially make a point and to call attention to this issue,” said Arnott. This is the fourth time he has introduced a volunteer protection bill in the Ontario legislature.
The MPP is an ardent supporter. “They give hundreds of volunteer hours to keep their neighbours safe,” he pointed out.
Arnott has personal reasons too. When he was 10 years old, his family had to flee from an electrical fire in their Arthur home. “It was scary at the time,” he said.
The fire chief, Howard White, lived down the street. “I remember vividly. After (the fire), he said he was determined to save his neighbour’s house,” recalled Arnott. Volunteer fire fighters drop what they are doing and come to help. “It’s quite an amazing thing they do for us in rural Ontario,” he pointed out. “When they need support, they get it from me.”
When those volunteers are two-hatters, they are exposing themselves to further exposure to toxins, risk-laden circumstances and accumulative critical incident stress, countered Fred LeBlanc, president of the OPFFA.
“We know if you are not a two-hatter, it is better for you for a whole host of reasons, personally and professionally,” he said. “When you are inviting yourself into someone else’s tragedy 24/7, that catches up to you. You need a break.”
For these kinds of health and safety reasons and for arbitration concerns, the OPPFA will once again fight Arnott’s proposed legislation, emphasized LeBlanc. Since the MPP first introduced legislation in 2002, the association has extensively educated its members on the issue.
When the Ontario fire marshal and then a government appointed mediator undertook talks with stakeholders, the association placed a moratorium on charges.
In his report, Justice George Adams, the mediation expert, suggested an amendment to the Fire Protection and Prevention Act to protect two-hatters in volunteer departments and to cap on them in composite departments subject to an agreement between the municipal government and OPFFA. The Ontario government has yet to act on these recommendations.
After the moratorium was lifted in 2004, the OPFFA left the issue with locals, which spread the information and began to deal with two-hatters one on one. Because locals have greater knowledge about nearby volunteer departments, they can set appropriate phasing out periods usually ranging from six to eight months, noted LeBlanc.
“There’s been a steady decline of two-hatters without a threat to public safety,” he said. “The long term goal is all members are in compliance with the constitution.”
Union not against vollies, just two-hatted members
If the fire marshal discovered that elimination of two-hatters in a community would be a serious threat to public safety, the OPFFA is willing to discuss a possible resolution in such a case, LeBlanc noted. The OPFFA president also made it clear that the association did not want to get rid of all volunteer fire fighters.
LeBlanc questioned the true tragic nature of lack of response by two-hatters in Shakespeare because the fire marshal issued a compliance certificate to the East Perth Fire Department after the incident.
In the Shakespeare situation, two-hatters were warned about non-compliance to the constitution months before the house fire. One was charged and set to fight it. Like Tim Lee, who was charged in Whitby four years ago, this fire fighter could have responded, said LeBlanc. Lee went public with his case in 2002, which led to Arnott’s first bill and then the Ontario’s government pursuit for resolutions.
LeBlanc disputed Arnott’s argument that the OPFFA cannot tell full-time fire fighters what they can and cannot do in their free time. A member of provincial Parliament cannot serve on municipal government and a police officer cannot moonlight as an officer with another force, he said.
Similar sanctions exist in fire services. One two-hatter was promoted in Ottawa but continued to work in a volunteer department without reprimand. When promoted to deputy chief, the individual was required to set aside his volunteer duties, said LeBlanc. Many fire marshal office employees are former fire fighters. Those who serve in volunteer departments must leave that role as long as they are working for the OFM, he said.
‘Volunteers are now direct competition’
Reliance on two-hatters is also hurting the association directly, the president pointed out. In Midland, a small local is threatened because the municipality is considering going to part-time fire fighters. At least one Ontario city chief administrative officer openly recruits full-time fire fighters to get the experience without paying for it, he said.
A heavy reliance on two-hatters has prevented Caledon, which is a growing community near Toronto, from moving to full-time fire fighters, contended LeBlanc.
Because emergencies do not stop at municipal borders, recalling fire fighters can be a problem when they work for two departments, said LeBlanc. In the 1998 eastern Ontario ice storm, some full-time fire fighters called in sick and responded in rural areas, he said.
With wage structures, Workers Safety Insurance Board coverage, pensions and the ability to organize as a bargaining unit, volunteer fire fighters are undergoing a change. “They’ve become a direct competition,” said LeBlanc.
Visit www.firefightingincanada.com/ Current_Issue.htm for archives on the two-hatter topic.
Karen Best is a freelance journalist. She has written extensively on volunteer fire service issues for Fire Fighting In Canada.