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Flashpoint: Union stand on volunteers doesn’t hold water

Union stand on volunteers doesn’t hold water

December 12, 2007 
By Peter Sells

picture_7The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms lists several fundamental freedoms, among them the freedom of association. This freedom is a human right and a concept in constitutional law based on the premise that adults are entitled, as individuals, to choose their associates, lawfully and in good faith, for whatever purpose they see fit, without interference from other individuals or agencies. Freedom of association has been exercised many times in our history when workers sought to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining. This is a good thing and the principle is a pillar of our society. But this is not the only meaning of freedom of association. Canadians are also free to do with their time, efforts and skills as they see fit. How, then, is it right to seek to restrict full-time firefighters from the noble donation of their time and expertise to their home communities as volunteer firefighters?

International, provincial and local firefighters’ unions have done exactly that in their efforts to impede their members from volunteering in their hometowns. In some cases, these so-called two hatters have been forced to resign from their hometown fire departments. Here are some of the arguments put forward in support of the unions’ positions and brief, logical counterpoints to each argument.

Having volunteer firefighters on staff prevents municipalities from hiring career firefighters, affecting firefighter safety. Staffing a fire department is not one size fits all, rather each community has its own needs and its own budget. A full-time department is not necessarily the best model for each community nor is it economically feasible for many towns. Let’s take a hypothetical town of 30,000 people served by 10 full-time firefighters during the day (five at a time on 12-hour shifts, when volunteers are typically less available to respond) augmented by 32 volunteers. For a fire outside the duty time of the full-time staff, the fire ground would be staffed by as many of the 32 volunteers as are available. If we were to insist that the town would be better served by a full career model, then the town would likely be able to afford about one firefighter per thousand people, or 30 firefighters total. Let’s be generous and give it 32 firefighters, or eight per shift. Now, the daytime staffing has increased a bit but there is no backup or reserve. We now have only eight personnel available at any time, 24/7. Factor in vacations, sick time and other absences and then tell me whether we have achieved a safer fire ground staffing level than the volunteer or composite models would allow.

Full-time firefighters who also volunteer in their hometowns will be sleep deprived or too tired for their full-time duty after responding. Sure, it’s possible that firefighters who respond to volunteer calls will be tired the next day but no more tired than a firefighter with a new baby or a sick toddler. Regardless, there’s a simple solution that might appease both sides: simply restrict a volunteer’s duty in the hours leading up to a full-time shift. It is very interesting to note that arguments about sleep deprivation were dismissed or minimized by the unions in the move to 24-hour shifts. The sleep-deprivation argument would appear more genuine if there were restrictions on other activities but is a union going to tell its members they can’t play hockey between shifts, or run their own businesses. Of course not. That would be imposing on the freedom of association of the members.


Compensation claims for work-related diseases will create jurisdictional issues. This is easily resolved by pro-rating such claims based on a cumulative ratio of duty hours between the full-time and volunteer employers. This solution is not only a resolution of the argument, it’s a fair arrangement that makes the hometown department responsible for its share of the claim. This approach could also apply when a firefighter changes employers, going from one full-time department to another. If the compensation claim argument is valid, then why is it OK for a firefighter to leave one department and go to another? Perhaps it is because the union has no power to prevent such a personal career decision, or that there is no political leverage to be wielded against a neighbouring full-time department.

So let’s put these arguments aside, since none of them holds up to logical analyses anyway. It is the mandate of the unions to encourage full-time employment wherever possible and safe working conditions in all cases. It is the responsibility of the municipalities to provide the best fire-protection model possible. These two mandates may not always be in synch but it is always the fundamental right of individual firefighters to make their own choice. The heart and history of the fire service is in volunteerism and service to the community.

I am certain that many readers will not agree with my position on this issue and I respect their freedom to disagree and encourage their feedback. In writing this piece, which has been brewing inside me for many years, I have exercised my fundamental freedoms of thought, belief, opinion and expression as guaranteed in the Charter. Therefore, I would expect any feedback to respect those freedoms.

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. He sits on the advisory councils of the Ontario Fire College and the Institution of Fire Engineers Canada Branch.

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