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IAFF censures Calgary chief

July 27, 2012 – The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) has censured Calgary Fire Chief Bruce Burrell in response to union claims that decisions by fire-service management are putting firefighters at risk.

July 27, 2012
By Laura King

July 27, 2012 – The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) has censured Calgary Fire Chief Bruce Burrell in response to union claims that decisions by fire-service management are putting firefighters at risk.

The move is the first such action against a Canadian fire chief since 2006 when St. Catharines, Ont., Fire Chief Tony Mintoff was censured over his handling of absenteeism and overtime, and just the third censure against a Canadian chief in the IAFF’s history.

In a press release Thursday evening, the IAFF said delegates to its annual meeting in Philadelphia this week unanimously supported the censure, which was put forward as a resolution by Calgary’s firefighters union.

"Firefighters in Calgary are working in an environment that is not 100 per cent committed to safety," said Calgary union president Mark Faires.

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"Our priority as firefighters is the safety of our members and the safety of the public. With the unanimous approval of this censure, our international colleagues have added their condemnation of fire management's decisions and practices in Calgary that are affecting everyone's safety.

“For years we have tried to work with Fire Chief Bruce Burrell, but, our efforts have failed. This censure is intended to strengthen our message that we want to work with the City of Calgary leadership to solve these important issues."

Essentially, the move has no binding effect other than to potentially embarrass Burrell and the City of Calgary, which sets fire-department funding and response levels.

The Calgary firefighters union says the city’s response time of eight minutes, 30 seconds 54.9 per cent of the time is half a minute longer than the IAFF standard of eight minutes 90 per cent of the time, and it’s practice of sending 12 firefighters to a structure fire is not good enough; the IAFF standard is between 15 and 17.

Calgary’s response times, like Toronto’s, have come under fire in the last couple of years – former Toronto Fire Chief William Stewart noted last winter that few municipalities can meet response standards as councils reduce fire-department funding – and its budget has been cut. The Calgary Fire Department was asked in 2010 to slash $7.9 million over three years starting in 2011, which Burrell said would impact its ability to meet standards, particularly in growing parts of the city.

The IAFF said that in addition to response times and numbers of firefighters sent to calls, it is concerned with the way taxpayer dollars budgeted “because it is lessening the availability of front-line services to Calgarians and increasing the risk to firefighters.”

Burrell did not comment on the censure but Calgary city manager Owen Tobert issued a statement Thursday night saying that the city maintains a “robust fire service.”

He said fire operations are constantly monitored and reviewed for any improvements.

“We have great faith that both the fire chief and our firefighters put citizen safety first,” Tobert said.

He added that the city has “great respect” for its unions and acknowledged that they help to ensure that services are delivered efficiently and effectively.

Tobert also praised the fire department and Burrell for providing “excellent service delivery to Calgarians.”

“Working efficiently within council-approved budgets, the [Calgary Fire Department] provides firefighting, emergency and disaster management, fire prevention and education to ensure the well-being and safety of all Calgarians,” he said.

The IAFF resolution says that during Burrell’s tenure as chief, the union has “unnecessarily been forced to engage in countless and constant battles with the Calgary Fire Department to protect the interests of its members” and has been “forced to file numerous grievances, a disproportionate number of which have resulted in arbitration at an enormous financial cost to Local 225 members.”

It also says morale of union members has been “severely and negatively impacted” and that the department has been placed on probation by the Commission on Fire Accreditation while Burrell “continues to vigorously advocate for and protect administrative and management resource at the expense of front-line response capability.”

The resolution notes that the low morale has caused officers, senior experienced firefighters and apparatus maintenance personnel to seek counseling for stress and that some personnel have been advised by their doctors to resign or retire.

Lastly, the resolution notes that the IAFF notified the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the Alberta Association of Fire Chiefs of the censure. Burrell is the past president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs.