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Letters to the Editor: February 2008

Editor’s note: Peter Sells’ December FlashPoint column has generated considerable feedback. Thanks to our letter writers for articulating their arguments and taking the time to send them to us. Peter’s reply is on page 54. To see Peter’s December column on two hatters, go to www.firefightingincanada.com and click on past issues.

February 28, 2008
By Fire Fighting in Canada staff

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Editor’s note: Peter Sells’ December FlashPoint column has generated considerable feedback. Thanks to our letter writers for articulating their arguments and taking the time to send them to us. Peter’s reply is below. Read Peter’s December column on two hatters.

To the editor,

As a career firefighter and proud member of the IAFF, I felt compelled to respond to Peter Sells’ recent article, “Union stand on volunteers doesn’t hold water”. Considering that Sells is himself an IAFF member, I am somewhat surprised at his attitudes and opinions towards the union.

In my career I have seen an incredible amount of tireless work completed by the IAFF on my behalf, and on behalf of my fellow union brothers and sisters. Take for example the numerous initiatives to have provincial governments recognize firefighter-specific cancers, a feat that ultimately will benefit career and volunteer firefighters alike. Or, consider for a moment the time the IAFF spends lobbying for a federal public safety officer compensation program, a bureau for national fire statistics or changes to the Canada Pension Plan to assist firefighters who retire at an earlier age than the general working population.

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Clearly the IAFF works with the best interest of its members in mind, and is largely responsible for positive political changes that may ultimately benefit all facets of the fire service.

I enjoy comprehensive annual medicals that keep a close eye on my health thanks to the efforts of my fire department administration and the IAFF, who have adopted the IAFF/IAFC joint fitness/wellness initiative. This program will help keep me fit an healthy throughout my career, and make sure that I can serve my community for a great many years. Ultimately I know that my local, and all IAFF affiliates, will work tirelessly on my behalf to ensure a long, safe and healthy career for me and my fellow brothers and sisters.

With this in mind, I find Sells’ position to be most peculiar. He makes no mention as to whether or not he is in fact a “two hatter”, and furthermore, really offers no suggestions as to positive prospective changes that could be introduced to the IAFF constitution with regards to the two-hatter issue. The IAFF is a democracy and policy is set through a democratic voting system. If Mr. Sells takes such exception to the IAFF and the policies that govern it, I would suggest that he take his discontent to a union meeting and become more involved in the organization of the IAFF. This would be the appropriate and effective venue to promote discussion and change within the union. Failing this, perhaps Sells should consider one of the many important roles in the fire service outside of the IAFF. He may find that he is happier in this environment rather than remaining in an organization he is discontent with, while continuing to enjoy the benefits that it provides from the hard dedicated work of union leaders.

Peter Steenaerts
Calgary, Alberta

To the editor,

Once again we have a member of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA) speaking out on what is admittedly a controversial issue through another medium rather than taking the matter where it belongs – to the union floor.

Mr. Sells references the Charter of Rights and Freedoms numerous times within his article as if to purport to fully understand the Charter’s freedom of association as some blanket freedom that is guaranteed in the circumstance of two hatters.  However, there are exceptions granted on infringements under Section 1 of the Charter. It continues to be our position that as a union we do have a right to limit our members’ off-duty activities should those activities conflict with the jurisdictional authority of the union. Other examples of such restrictions are; teachers cannot teach on different school boards; it is common within the construction trades where a unionized member would be removed from the union for providing the same services outside of the union; and, persons who work for the Ontario Fire Marshals Office (many are former firefighters) cannot work or volunteer for a municipal fire service. Sound similar?

Where persons such as Mr. Sells attempt to differentiate our situation is by referring to our members who are two hatters as “volunteers”.  While legislatively this title is technically correct, today’s volunteer firefighter in Ontario (at least the vast majority) is far removed from the Norman Rockwell image that many conjure when they hear the words volunteer firefighter.  The fact is many, if not most, volunteer firefighters now earn wages that compete and even exceed on an hourly basis full-time firefighters’ wages.  Many so-called volunteer firefighters have joined trade unions such as the Teamsters, United Steelworkers, United Food and Commercial Workers and the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers.  So, depicting these members as viciously targeted when they are only “donating their time” is greatly misleading and does not fairly present their impact on our union and on Ontario’s fire service.

I find Mr. Sells’ spin on the numbers in his fictitious community to attempt to show that full-time service would somehow be a lower level of service offensive.  Clearly Mr. Sells has a less than acute understanding of how smaller municipal forces work. Call-back features are common within smaller municipalities whereby the full-time firefighters are called back to duty when required. This means that all 32 firefighters may be available if required. His fictional municipality would actually have an increased level of service as these firefighters would be more readily available for call back 24/7 rather than a volunteer system that typically has peak availability times during evenings and weekends.

Rather than criticize his union citing a Charter right he believes he has, he should make an attempt to exercise a democratic right that he absolutely has. I would encourage him to go to his union membership during a meeting and seek to amend this section of our constitution (his constitution) that has had him burning inside for so many years. 
Should he continue to be in the minority maybe he should respect the right of the majority in a way that he has asked everyone else to respect his right to publicly condemn them. 

Fred LeBlanc, president,
Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association

To the editor,

Again the issue of the “two hatter” has surfaced as the IAFF claims a violation to their union constitution. If you are a union member, don’t even think about stepping up to help out your community by doing what you are trained to do best – fight fire! But I wonder if this is a local union constitution, since depending where you live many career firefighters volunteer in their home communities. Many become officers, even chief officers. I have had the privilege to work alongside some of these “two hatters” when I was a volunteer. They are skilled, dedicated personnel who truly love the profession.

Having never read the IAFF constitution, I am somewhat confused and hope this can be clarified as to why being a volunteer firefighter is against the constitution and why in some areas it is accepted whereas in others it is a violation. Hopefully, a union official can comment, since the points that District Chief Sells brings about in his FlashPoint column answer the unions’ concerns and show that they should rethink their constitution. In support of District Chief Sells, maybe these comments might help.

The union doesn’t want firefighters showing up for their shift “tired and stressed out” from running calls in their volunteer halls. That is a fair comment since we ultimately care about the safety of our fellow firefighters. So, how does it work for those firefighters who work second jobs between shifts? Some are contractors, teachers, business owners and taxi drivers. They get off from their shift and work all day pounding nails, laying floors or landscaping. They deal with upset customers, employee problems and missed deadlines and then head back to the hall for another shift. Since they are not volunteer firefighters, they must be well rested and not stressed out since the union hasn’t found those occupations to be a problem. Oh, and, of course, their second job and/or business never causes distractions while on duty.

I have taught alongside and been a student in classes with firefighters in between their nights. They work all night and then come to teach class all day only to go back to work that night. Then they do it all over again the next day. I know in conversation they have some busy shifts. So after teaching all day, wouldn’t they be tired and stressed out as they head off to their next shift? Only if they were a volunteer firefighter, but not an adjunct instructor.
In some smaller career departments, any large fires result in a call back of off-duty personnel. A big enough fire will bring back personnel that are scheduled for the next shift. So, here a firefighter is back on O/T fighting fire between his shifts. He will still show up to work later on, but he won’t be “tired or stressed out”. No, only if he were a volunteer firefighter.

Frankly, it appears it is not the issue of a two hatter, but one of two standards. Go ahead and teach, work, run your business or attend a call-back fire and then head to your next shift; as long as you’re not a volunteer firefighter the union’s position is that you are well rested and relaxed.

I can understand the frustration Chief McIntosh is feeling on losing experienced members, and can only imagine the frustration the firefighters who were forced to resign are feeling. While there are no logical explanations as to why the IAFF is  against two hatters, it is apparent the union supports a double standard. At the end of the day, it is the citizens of these communities who are loosing out. The same group of people we swear to protect.

Rob Chatton
Assistant fire chief – training
Pitt Meadows Fire Rescue

To the editor,

I read with interest the opinions of Peter Sells on unions and their stance on volunteer fire fighters. Of particular interest to me was his opinion that the union stance is an apparent infringement on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  As President of the Toronto Fire Fighters, the local he is affiliated with, I would like to offer my response in regard to his rights and responsibilities as a member of our union.

To begin, I would like to correct the misnomer of volunteers. The two-hat firefighters in question are paid, on-call part-time fire- fighters. There is nothing voluntary or necessarily noble in their cause. This is commerce in its base form; supplying a service for a fee.

The second misconception is that the union is some third-party entity dictating its will. The union is the collective will of the firefighters that make up that jurisdiction. In other words, when Brother Sells speaks of the union he is speaking of himself. It is not a separate entity. As president, I am not entitled to any more votes than anyone else. If I want to espouse my opinions at a meeting I remove myself from the chair and speak on the floor, side by side with members like Brother Sells.

The final issue here is the question of whether the union is restricting Brother Sells or any other member in their freedom to associate. This is patently incorrect. What our members have set, through the democratic process of their respective constitutions, are the rules to maintain membership in their organization. There is a fundamental difference in saying our members are restricted in who they can join and saying that to maintain your membership in our organization you must adhere to our rules. Members that do not wish to adhere to our rules make a choice to serve one organization over another. Our members have decided that it is in their interest, for myriad reasons, that this rule be in their constitution. 

Although the Canadian Charter of Freedoms allows for freedom of association, the laws of the country dictate that certain organizations are illegal or restricted.  People of this country make a choice; if they want to be members in those organizations, then they cannot be citizens of Canada. A union constitution works in the same manner. The union decisions have no impact on any other aspect in your life, only on your membership in our organization.
What is interesting is that Brother Sells wraps himself in the flag of the Charter, while ignoring the democratic process that the Charter protects. Our union, like all others, has a process for constitutional change. It is a democratic process that Brother Sells has never availed to use. I cannot recall Brother Sells being present at a meeting for constitutional changes and he has certainly never offered this change up to his membership to debate and vote on. What Brother Sells really wants is for legislation to change our constitution. He wants to deny our members the democratic right of self determination. His idea of democracy and freedom is different than mine; I believe firefighters should have the freedom to democratically set their rules, not have a minority will invoked through government legislation.

Scott Marks, president,
Toronto Professional Fire Fighters Association

District Chief Peter Sells responds:

First, I would like to revisit one point, that of call backs of off-duty members. True, I have never worked for a small community fire service, but I do know that paid-on-call firefighters are usually required to live within a specified response area. Small fire services with career membership do indeed have call-back provisions but normally this is done to cover shifts when staffing is low, not to provide additional staffing to an emergency scene in progress. Since career firefighters are not required to live within the community, a call-back system for larger incidents would be more effective if it involved paid, on-call firefighters who can be there faster than mutual aid from the next town.

I have to agree with Peter Steenaerts that the IAFF has done and continues to do incredible work on the behalf of its members, work that ultimately benefits the entire fire service worldwide. Championing the recognition of work-related cancers, joint wellness/fitness initiatives and tireless research efforts are hallmarks of leadership and an indication of a truly caring organization. My own local has provided me with comprehensive benefits and ensures that I am safe at work and well remunerated by my employer, none of which has anything to do with restricting members from two-hatting, which was the topic of my article.

Presidents Marks and LeBlanc are correct in that I do have the right to bring this issue to the floor at a union meeting. However, that is not the only option available to me and I do not believe it would effect any change. The very nature of the matter is that locals are taking action that, in my opinion, has a detrimental effect on neighbouring fire services. This alone places the issue in a larger perspective, demanding public discourse beyond the union floor.

My objective in writing about this issue was to provide an avenue for such discourse.  I do not seek to deny my fellow members any of their democratic rights, either within the association or as members of Canadian society as a whole.


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