|United Firefighters of Winnipeg president Alex Forrest, shown during a presentation at the CAFC conference in Winnipeg in September 2009, was acclaimed to a seventh term in March.
Photo by Laura King
Forrest – a lawyer – talks about his dedication to union work and his successes and challenges.
Q. Seven terms. What keeps you coming back for more?
A. It’s something I really enjoy. When you’re involved in the union, it becomes your passion and a part of your life. I enjoy my job and I enjoy helping firefighters. I even enjoy contract negotiations because that’s where the union can really make a difference for a great bunch of guys.
Q. What are the most pressing issues for your members?
A. Looking over the last 15 years, the biggest issue facing Canadian firefighters has been getting cancer recognized as a occupational disease. It was only in 2002 that Manitoba became the first province to recognize cancer as a line-of-duty problem. Now we have seven provinces that have this presumptive legislation; we still have three provinces and territories to go.
An issue that runs a close second is the move of firefighters into emergency medical services. The traditional model of single role ambulances doing EMS duty has really failed. The provinces are only realizing now that putting a tremendous amount of money into this model has only made the situation worse.
In contrast, fire-based EMS – which we have in Winnipeg – doesn’t cost more. We can put the resources of firefighters into emergency medicine and provide better service to the community. It’s a common sense resolution to a growing problem. Firefighters trained as paramedics have a four-to-five minute response time here in Winnipeg, whereas traditional EMS crews take from nine to 12 minutes in other Canadian cities.
Q. What has changed during your terms?
A. The biggest change is that firefighters are getting more involved in EMS. Fifteen years ago this was not the norm. Today, every firefighter signing on with our department has to be dual trained in fire and EMS.
Incident command procedures and accountability have also improved over my time as union president. Safety measures have improved tenfold since then; the problem is that the toxicity of environments that we have to work in has increased 20 times.
Q. As detailed in the September 2009 issue of Fire Fighting in Canada, your union and the City of Winnipeg worked out a strong, co-operative relationship after decades of conflict. How did you achieve this?
A. It took time and tragedy [the deaths of captains Harold Lessard and Tom Nichols] but eventually we both learned that we can accomplish a great deal more when the union and the department work together. The same is true in Edmonton, where both sides co-operate with each other. In these cities, the departments are excelling and being leaders in fire and EMS.
It is really easy to fight, and it does add a whole level of effort to work together. But it helps us provide better protection to the community and it certainly makes it easier to deal with the politicians, because it’s no secret that fire fighting is one of the most political jobs out there.
Having a united front makes it easier to negotiate for what we need from government. The more we work together, the better things go.
Q. What is your take on the 24-hour shift? Right now you are working on the 10/14 rotation.
A. The 24-hour shift has certainly caught on in Ontario, where commute time is a big issue. But in western Canada commuting is not really a problem.
We are interested in the 24-hour shift and are studying it. One point that interests us is the health and safety aspect of this rotation. If the evidence proves that it is better for firefighters we would push for it. Granted, it can be brutal to work 24 hour days but at least you get a full day off to catch up on sleep and recover. Here, you can work 14 hours at night, not get enough sleep and have to be right back at it 10 hours later.
One issue is just how much strain this schedule would put on our members. Because they are also serving as paramedics, there is no such thing as a quiet station anymore. We are seeing an average of 2,000 to 3,000 runs a year, which means that each station is doing about 10 runs a day. So we have to figure out how moving to a 24-hour shift in this environment would affect our people. Would it make things better or worse?
Q. Platooning – not sending out full crews to every call – is being considered by some fire departments. What do you think of it?
A. I have serious concerns about this practice. The problem is this: What happens if you send a partial team to an incident, just to learn that you need more people to handle the situation? You have lost critical time and you may be putting the first response team in danger, since they are unlikely to sit in their trucks waiting for backup to arrive.
I can’t think of any fire chief or union president that would want to increase the level of risk for firefighters and that’s what platooning could potentially do.
Q. What about health and wellness?
A. I spend a lot of time talking to premiers and ministers of labour trying to persuade them to pass presumptive legislation to protect firefighters. But we can’t expect them to do this if we, as unions, don’t then give something back by having proper health and wellness programs for our members. You just can’t ask government to compensate for problems without trying to minimize the amount of money that needs to be spent in doing so.
That’s where health and wellness programs come in – every dollar spent on them saves two to three dollars that has to be spent treating and replacing injured workers.
Calgary and Edmonton already have very successful health and wellness programs. We are trying to learn from them, to develop programs for Winnipeg.
Q. What do you see as the big issue during your next term?
A. I am expecting to see a real showdown between fire and EMS in every province. We are already seeing it happen in B.C. and Ontario. There are hard facts that prove that fire-based EMS provides better, more affordable service for communities. But change is always hard to come by, especially when there are entrenched interests in place.
Q. And will you be running for an eighth term, in two years’ time?
A. Definitely. I love being a union president, doing what I can to help our members. Even when I went to law school and got my degree – and got called to the bar – I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather be doing than what I am doing now. So yes, I will be staying with this job if the members want me to. Being a union president was the best decision of my life.