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Forward thinking

Editor Laura King sat down with newly installed OAFC president Matt Pegg in the spring to talk about issues, challenges and changes. Pegg, the former deputy chief in Brampton, Ont., is now a deputy chief with Toronto Fire Services.

November 12, 2013
By Laura King

Editor Laura King sat down with newly installed OAFC president Matt Pegg in the spring to talk about issues, challenges and changes. Pegg, the former deputy chief in Brampton, Ont., is now a deputy chief with Toronto Fire Services.

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OAFC president Matt Pegg speaks at a press conference in June in Vaughan, Ont., at which Townwood Homes announced its sprinklered housing development. Pegg, the former deputy chief in Brampton and now a deputy with Toronto Fire Services, says the announcement has changed the landscape in residential construction by demonstrating that residential sprinklers are viable and affordable.


 

Q The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs had a number of issues on the table at its annual conference in May. Is there a new direction now with a new president and a new board?

A We have a number of ongoing initiatives and projects that we need to drive through to completion. The integrated risk management tool was very well received at the [conference] and that process needs to be continued, and we know that the fire marshal’s office is committed to doing that, so our part will simply be to continue in the partnership and ensure that it gets rolled out across the province.

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We have the completion of the transition to the NFPA professional qualification standards. A lot of that work is underway and it will continue over the course of this year.

We have the development of an OAFC line-of-duty death protocol that has been under development for some time; our urban committee is being revitalized; there is more attention being put into labour relations aspect of the fire service. Those things will continue.

There are a number of things on our radar that have already become priorities for us; we now have developed a sense of our high-level initiatives and strategic plans for this term. The completion of the initiatives we just talked about are some of those; the mid-rise construction issues are going to take some significant time for the OAFC and, obviously, we’re committed to being there – that will stream out through our fire-prevention group.

The position of the OAFC on midrise is actually fairly succinct; we recognize that our areas of concern are occupant safety and firefighter safety; outside of that the OAFC doesn’t have a stake in the game. We’ve had the opportunity to meet with the homebuilders and the OPFFA and the minister of municipal affairs and housing, Linda Jeffery, and Madeleine Meilleur, the minister of community safety and correctional services. All those groups now know very clearly what the position of the OAFC is – those are the only two areas that we will vest in.

The other position that we’ve taken is the OAFC supports the initiation of a technical consultation to drive that; we don’t support the mid-rise issue being dealt with on a political agenda. Clearly the TAC [technical advisory committee] process that recently resulted in the sprinkler amendments [for seniors homes] is a model of excellence and that’s the message that we’ve relayed to both ministers and we’re encouraging them to take the same approach with the mid-rise issue. At the point when the appropriate minister commissions the TAC, we’ve committed to be there –  and we will work beside the industry experts to ensure that whatever code amendments, building code or fire code, need to happen to protect occupant safety and firefighter safety – will happen.

It’s not the mandate of the OAFC, nor do we have an interest in building materials; it’s not our area of expertise. We are only interested in firefighter and occupant safety.

In terms of the OAFC, we’ve committed to some business-cycle enhancements. We will be undertaking a full review of the OAFC constitution; it’s dated and it’s due. We need to make sure the constitution of the OAFC sets us up to be responsive to what the realities are today, and enables us to be reasonably nimble from a business perspective.

We don’t want to be in a position where the association is hampered by its own process. But at the same time, we need to make sure that the constitution affords the men and women of the Ontario fire service who stand up to [volunteer on the board] – they need to know that their efforts are recognized, that they have a reasonable expectation of being successful and, quite frankly, that they are being adequately protected when they execute their duties in this association.

I’m not aware of there being any issues but the not-for-profit legislation is changing and that is necessitating a full review of our constitution to make sure it’s consistent with where we are today and where we need to go.

Q Over the last few years there have been legal situations in Ontario – trials and inquests, for example – that have necessitated the OAFC expanding its services to its members. What is the OAFC doing to support its member chief officers?

A Members services is one of our four major streams; the business of the OAFC is divided into four streams: legislative, which includes fire prevention, health and safety and will also build in things like mid-rise construction and the constitutional review; members services, under which we will drive the completion of the line-of-duty-death protocol and to continue to work on some things we’re doing in candidate testing, and continue to drive member-services initiatives; fire services, which includes candidate testing and tanker-shuttle accreditation; and treasury and education, which includes the transition to NFPA standards.

We’re really trying to get a better understanding of and chart the course in terms of what members are really looking for from the OAFC and of those requests, which are we really able to consider given our constitutional framework? We’re really taking a forensic look at some of the mandates of the OAFC, recognizing that we are not constituted as a labour organization; the OAFC is not a union, we are not a bargaining unit for fire chiefs and we are not, by constitution, put together to act as a representative for fire chiefs in local or employment matters.

Having said that, there is a demand for those services. We’re trying to find the right balance between overstepping our constitutional bounds and being able to provide fire chiefs with some advice and guidance and expertise; we’ve seen some of that over the past number of terms with some work on understanding how employment contracts work, a better understanding with respect to the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, assisting chiefs in navigating the Ministry of Labour.  And we’re obviously going to be playing an active role in the Elliot Lake inquiry, in which . . . we have a vested interest.

All too often, today’s fire chiefs find themselves in the middle of very difficult and complicated issues such as arbitrations and things like the Elliot Lake disaster. When you look at all of the entities that are involved, often times it’s the fire chief who finds himself or herself surrounded by a number of organizations that he or she may not have ever dealt with before. So that’s really the focus that we’re taking from a member-services environment, trying to offer some advice and guidance without trying to inappropriately inject ourselves into an employment-relationship world.

I’ve had a conversation with OPFFA president Mark MacKinnon about the things that make our two groups fundamentally different; Mark’s primary mandate is the delivery members services as a trade union. The primary mandate of the OAFC is to be a champion of public safety, so our constitutional expectation is the relentless pursuit of fire safety. These other things that we’re doing in the form of member services are enhancements, but they’re not our primary objective.

Q So are you looking at changing the constitution to change direction to reflect the demand for those services?

A I don’t think so. I think the constitution enables us to do things like create the member services committee and drive members services. It would be a fundamental shift for the OAFC to leave the public-safety realm and enter the labour-relations realm.

The sense I’m getting from the board is that we’re on the right path; we provide a lot of member services in the form of education and training – the labour relations seminar is testimony to that, the health and safety seminar is testimony to that and so is the mid-term and our conference. The best advantage we can give the fire chiefs is one of education and training and then support and guidance. Having full-time staff with the OAFC, under the leadership of Richard Boyes now – by virtue of the fact that he is not employed by a municipality, he inherits a little more latitude than the rest of us do, so he has more latitude to reach out and engage with fire chiefs who are going through tough times. He can do that far more freely than I can, even though as the president of the OAFC I would like to, but it puts any of us in a potentially precarious position with our local employers.

And that’s the meat in the sandwich; fire chiefs often find themselves wedged between the position of a municipal council versus [the Association of Municipalities of Ontario], or AMO versus the province, or AMO and council versus the association. We would be doing a disservice to fire chiefs by trying to insert another player in that mix; I think the right answer is to continue with supportive education and training and make our staff, such as Richard, available from an advice and guidance position.

Q Richard Boyes was hired as a chief operations officer and became executive director when Barry Malmsten retired. Is there a plan to fill the COO position?

A It still technically exists. I think the safest answer is that it’s on hold pending the determination of whether we can create a sustainable funding model for it. Will it happen again in the future? It may. Richard needs some time to look at the business of the OAFC. We engage a lot of people on somewhat of an ad-hoc basis. That’s a business model that has worked for the OAFC, so as issues arise we can engage them on a short-term basis to drive pressing issues. We like that model. It gives us the ability to be nimble and react to situations that are going on instead of trying to find someone who fits all of those skill sets that we can’t define in advance.

Q The OAFC has had some successes lately, particularly the announcement by the provincial government that seniors homes will be retrofitted to include sprinklers, and support from a developer in Vaughan that is voluntarily installing sprinklers in its new development. Where do you go from here?

A We have had a lot of success. The opportunity to be part of the TAC announcement was very special and, from our perspective, we believe that is likely the biggest improvement in fire safety that we’ve seen in many years.

Are we done yet? No. We’re certainly appreciative of all of the work that happened and the government’s willingness to retroactively implement sprinklers in vulnerable occupancies, but when I have the chance to stand on a stage like . . . at Townwood Homes, that represents what we see to be the next model of success.

There are improvements we can continue make by working with elected officials in the government to enact legislative change, and certainly the OAFC is committed to being at the table until the day comes when everything residence is sprinklered – that’s what needs to happen to be in the best position for public safety – but the solution with Townwood Homes, The Co-operators Insurance and the City of Vaughan is a very visible example of what can happen without waiting for the legislative change.

A lot of credit and kudos go to Larry Bentley, the fire chief in Vaughan, and all of his team for that – taking that leadership and making it happen – but I don’t think it can be stated enough the value and the contribution that Townwood is making not only to that one development in Vaughan, but they have fundamentally changed the landscape in residential construction by clearly demonstrating that residential sprinklers are viable, they’re affordable and they’re not a scary thing, and that’s what we stood at that podium and acknowledged – that this can be done and it is being done.

With air bags in cars, the real push for those safety enchantments came from consumer demand; the implementation of sprinkler protection in residential construction will be an unstoppable train if the residents of this province demand it.

All of the people who have been working so hard behind the scenes – our fire prevention committee – Jim Jessop, Brian Maltby, Frank Lamie – to see it done voluntarily in an atmosphere that’s very celebratory, is cool. We can be a lot more timely in producing those kinds of results than we can be trying to get through the regulatory process. When the City of Vaughan and Townwood homes shake hands and agree to sprinkler that development, we didn’t have to rely on any regulatory process, it was a handshake and it results in people being safe; it doesn’t get any better than that.

Q Describe the relationship between the OAFC and the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) and explain the key issues that are on the table.

A The OAFC shares a strong history and relationship with the CAFC. We have an automatic seat on the board of directors. My first face to face meeting will be at their conference. I’ve had the opportunity to be in fairly regular contact with [CAFC president] Steve Gamble. I’ve certainly spent a significant amount of time speaking with Steve about the position that the OAFC took on mid-rise construction and making sure that he and his group are up to speed on what’s going on in Ontario and what prompted the OAFC to come out with it’s position. There’s no doubt that the position of the OAFC is consistent with what the CAFC is trying to do.

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Orillia Fire Chief Ralph Dominelli with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne at the OAFC conference in May during which Wynne and Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur announced that the Liberal government would enact legislation to require existing seniors homes to be sprinklered; a fire at a seniors home in Orillia in 2009 killed four people.  Photo BY LAURA KING


 

We have a strong partnership in Ontario with a lot of groups, certainly the CAFC is one of them. We’ve enjoyed a long and supportive partnership with the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services and it will be my pleasure to go and reciprocate Fire Chief Vince MacKenzie’s attendance at our annual conference.

The medical marijuana issue is a concern with the OAFC – that formed a lot of discussion and debate on our resolution floor this year. It’s an urban/rural mix but a lot of our rural communities are seeing a lot of extremely large legalized marijuana grows – even though they’ve been legalized, we’re still concerned that the same fire safety hazards that exist in an illegal grow exist in a legal grow; there are still major hydro issues, entanglement and trap hazards, hazardous materials issues.

We still need to achieve some resolution to the outstanding safety issues, and the issue of medical marijuana grow ops to us is as much as a firefighter safety issue as anything else. So obviously the OAFC isn’t in a position to have a position on whether medical marijuana should be legal; my concern is that once it’s legal and becomes installed in communities, how do a local fire service and fire chief and firefighters responds to that without compromising health and safety? I know that Steve Gamble and the CAFC share that concern. That’s the message that I will take back – that the focus needs to be on responder safety.

Obviously the new regulations on medical marijuana are big step, the issue continues to drive the point that the OAFC is committed to in Ontario, which is the understanding of the three lines of defence, and the fact that with the public safety model in Ontario, the first line of that defence is public education, and it all starts there; after that code and standard enforcement and prevention; and when those two lines aren’t enough to prevent that fire from happening, we need to be able to rely fully on our third line of defence and emergency response.

But whether its fire-service professionals or government, I’m not convinced there’s a deep enough appreciation for public education and code enforcement. Medical marijuana, mid-rise construction, everything we deal with – it really is all about occupant safety and firefighters safety. We can deal with the structure fire but my goal is that every time we pull up to a structure fire that family is standing safely on the front lawn because they’ve been adequately educated and, in addition, their home was sprinklered, allowing them to escape.

It’s unfortunate in our business that there’s still a lot of angst around the sprinkler movement. My holistic belief is that that’s unnecessary. There has never been, nor will there be, a sprinkler system that replaces the need for proper response by firefighters. But what an effective sprinklers system does is buy time for the occupants to escape, and in circumstances where the occupants can’t escape, it gives our firefighters a chance of performing an effective rescue while minimizing the risk that they’re taking to do that. When someone explains it to me like that, I can’t see the negative. It becomes painfully obvious where we need to go. Unfortunately there was some belief in the past that sprinklers would be the panacea and would reduce or eliminate the need for effective fire suppression. That’s sadly uninformed, and that’s not the case, and it’s not the position of the OAFC.

Q Last question. The OAFC has been involved with the Canadian Governmental Committee. The committee’s mandate was to garner federal support for the Canadian fire service. Where does the OAFC stand on approaching Ottawa for fire-services support and funding?

A There’s no doubt that funding continues to be a challenge for all of us, whether you’re the very largest in the City of Toronto or the very smallest in rural Ontario. One of the positions that I’m most interested in is, I believe, and I believe that our board would concur, is that the next course of action and the one that needs to be pushed, is that we need a national fire adviser. If you follow the models of success that have happened south of the border and in some of the more progressive jurisdictions, that is clearly the model of success.

No municipality would expect a fire service to operate efficiently and effectively, and no council would expect to get good recommendations from its fire service, if they didn’t install a fire chief. We clearly need the same level of leadership nationally in a national fire adviser. There needs to be a person or series of people who are dedicated to advising the federal government about fire-and-emergency-services issues from a national perspective, singular in purpose, and I don’t see how we’re going to achieve that without a national fire adviser.