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Flashpoint: September 2010


September 20, 2010
By Peter Sells

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Well, it looks like someone was paying close attention. Maybe too close, since I was just trying to make a rhetorical point. Regardless, the northern town of Spectre, Ont., has come up with an innovative way to solve staffing and budget problems in two different but critical municipal departments.

In a previous Flashpoint column, I wrote the following:

Aside from the tasks we perform, which are inherently unique, there are many support functions that are common to fire and EMS: both train and equip staff; purchase and maintain vehicles; and operate communications and dispatch centres in order to provide emergency and non-emergency service to the public. But the same can be said about the solid waste, water/waste-water, roads or public health departments. How come I don’t remember anyone talking about fire-based waste management?

Well, it looks like someone was paying close attention. Maybe too close, since I was just trying to make a rhetorical point. Regardless, the northern town of Spectre, Ont., has come up with an innovative way to solve staffing and budget problems in two different but critical municipal departments. Faced with all of the same pressures as any community, the Spectre town council was considering various cost-cutting measures such as: reduced staffing on fire apparatus (from four to three, always a bad idea); contracting out waste collection; severe water use restrictions and other equally unsavory choices. There had been a hiring freeze in place for five years, which had resulted in some staff reductions in all departments except fire. The strategic plan included attrition until the impact of contracting out waste collection could be minimized. But a fresh perspective on the overall deployment of town staff may make outsourcing unnecessary.

Beginning in October, pending the agreement of the CUPE and IAFF locals, Spectre’s waste collection trucks will go on their daily routes staffed only by a driver/operator. Equivalent positions have been identified within the town for the remaining surplus waste management staff. Each collection truck will be followed by an on-duty fire apparatus. The lieutenant and driver will remain in the fire truck as the other two firefighters, dressed in coveralls, will act as the waste collectors, walking behind the collection truck. In the event of an emergency response, the firefighters will quickly strip off their coveralls, don their bunker gear and mount the fire apparatus. Since they will be assisting only with waste collection within their normal response areas, there will be no significant impact on response times.

Once the idea was hatched, some unanticipated benefits were identified. The lieutenant and driver can conduct valuable on-street work – smoke alarm surveys, distribution of public education information, hydrant familiarization, identification of derelict parked vehicles or other access problems. The impact on the non-emergency routine of the fire service will be limited to several hours per day for the day or days of scheduled waste collection within each station’s first response areas. With the existing shift schedules and apparatus duty rotation within each station, each firefighter will work collection duty no more than twice a month.

The benefits? Apparatus staffing reductions will not be an issue going forward, likewise for contracting out waste collection. Everyone keeps a paycheque. The public has regular and predictable contact with the firefighters in their neighbourhoods. All that remains is for letters of agreement to be finalized with the locals. With the alternative being membership reductions for both CUPE and IAFF, the measures are expected to pass at special meetings before the October pilot project implementation.

So by this point I am sure that you have formed an opinion about this so-called process innovation. Will this experiment fill Spectre’s needs, or will the municipality face a wall of vocal opposition when the matter comes to a vote?  There is no argument that this is a cost-cutting measure, but as taxpayers should we not be holding our governments accountable for efficiency? The arguments will focus on whether the benefits of efficiency and sustainability of existing services outweigh the ambitions of over-eager town councilors or auditors who take this model to extremes of union-busting.

OK, now relax. Remember what I said above about a rhetorical point from my previous column? Well, this was a rhetorical exercise. There is no town of Spectre and no plan for fire-based waste management. What I would like you to do right now is analyze your emotional reaction to my ruse.

If you were angry, was it because firefighters were doing work that you consider less important than their traditional duties? Neither service is more or less important than the other. You could no more operate a city without waste management, or water/wastewater, or public health than without fire protection or law enforcement. 

If your reaction was one of fear or anxiety, then perhaps you saw the situation as plausible. Would such a plan work in your town? What other services could be jointly delivered in this way?


Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor.


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