Report recommends turning rural firefighters into ‘informal’ urban employees

“Rural firefighters are trained to the highest industry standards and provide an effective response to emergency services or residents,” the Ottawa Fire Services report says.

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Tim Rath grew up almost across the street from the fire station in Kinburn, a town on the western edge of Ottawa. When he saw volunteer firefighters working at the station, he wanted to be one too.

“We saw them go over the trucks. They were at all public events. “I always wanted to be a part of this,” says Rath.

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Now in his sixth year as a volunteer firefighter, Rath, 26, estimates he is called to one or two incidents a week, ranging from house fires, which are rare at his station, to assisting paramedics in car accidents and putting out grass fires. of control. That’s in addition to the two hours a week of duties at the station.

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As municipalities across Canada struggle to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters, Ottawa Fire Services is recommending that the city convert 473 rural volunteer firefighters into “casual” municipal employees.

If approved, the change will cost the city about $500,000 per year, according to a recommendation that will be presented to the city’s emergency preparedness and protective services committee on Thursday.

Volunteer firefighters represent 40 per cent of Ottawa Fire Services resources and cover 80 per cent of the city’s land area at 16 rural stations and four compound stations (there are volunteer and career firefighters at the compound stations) , according to the report. But those firefighters are considered “volunteers” and not city employees, and reclassifying them would recognize the dangerous work they perform and reduce the city’s financial liabilities.

Long-sought employee status for rural firefighters

Reclassifying these firefighters could also improve retention and provide stability in employment relationships. The report notes that rural firefighters and the Rural Fire Advisory Committee have long sought employee status similar to other casual employees.

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Volunteer firefighters earn between $18.93 per hour for a probationary firefighter and $29.59 per hour for a captain in Ottawa. On average, they work about 10 hours per week. Making them casual municipal employees would give them vacation pay, access to a pension plan, CPP and EI, while maintaining their status as volunteer firefighters.

Last year, volunteers applied to the Ontario Labor Relations Board to unionize, the city report notes. The request was denied, but the board determined that firefighters could be considered employees under the Labor Relations Act. If nothing is done, “discontent among rural firefighters is expected to continue,” the report warns.

“The current instability in labor relations could lead to the fracture of Ottawa Fire Services’ rural operations and create inconsistency in practices between stations. “Long-term consequences could affect service delivery.”

The role of a volunteer firefighter

Rural firefighters are deployed to fires and other emergencies, including power outages, floods, tornadoes and other weather-related incidents. They remove victims from car accidents and perform water and ice rescues.

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Volunteer firefighter applicants must have a Class G driver’s license and undergo a safety check and interview. Rural and urban recruits must pass the same physical tests as part of qualifications, including forcible entry tests, pulling a hose, carrying equipment, climbing ladders and “rescuing” a 165-pound dummy, among other challenges.

Rural volunteer firefighters provide a vital service to Ottawa residents and represent the city with professionalism and integrity, said Ottawa Fire Chief Paul Hutt. It is a selfless act of giving back to the community and providing crucial assistance in emergencies.

“Volunteer firefighters receive nominal compensation for their exceptional service,” he said.

As it stands, Ottawa Fire Services has a full roster of volunteer firefighters. A spring recruitment campaign is usually held each year.

Many municipalities across the country have seen a decline in the recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters, Hutt said. Reasons include tough economic times, family commitments, training and certification requirements, increased service calls, retirement and moving people.

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Volunteer firefighters are comparable to City of Ottawa employees in many ways. They wear a uniform that is indistinguishable from that of career firefighters. There are annual performance reviews. Volunteer firefighters are subject to all City of Ottawa policies, including discipline.

The Rural Fire Advisory Committee met with Ottawa Fire Services in 2019 to discuss the concerns of rural firefighters, who wanted to maintain their volunteer status under the Fire Prevention and Protection Act to qualify for the concurrent employment exemption . About 105 city employees are also volunteer firefighters.

Mark MacDonald, executive director of the Ontario Fire Chiefs Association, also notes that recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters is a problem for fire departments across the country, and says there has been a notable decline over the past three years.

Retention is particularly important because of the cost of training and equipping a firefighter. Some municipalities have introduced incentives such as healthcare spending accounts.

In Ontario, the cost of salaries and benefits for one career firefighter is equivalent to the cost of 10 to 20 volunteer firefighters, MacDonald said. The need for volunteer firefighters is not going away, especially in rural areas where there is low call volume.

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Not all volunteer firefighters can respond to every call, so a rural station needs about three times as many volunteers as would be needed for a typical call. A fully staffed rural station in Ottawa has 25 volunteer firefighters, while a composite station has 18.

Rath, a licensed engineer, finds firefighting a nice part-time job and isn’t worried about the added benefits that would come with being a casual city employee. Even if he moves, he would still sign up to be a volunteer firefighter wherever he lives.

Blaine MacDonald, 39, applied to be a firefighter at the Kinburn station about five years ago. He works as a forklift operator and safety coordinator at a Kanata warehouse, and he likes the job because of the camaraderie, because it helps him stay in shape, and because it has introduced him to people in the community.

“When I moved here, I didn’t know anyone. Now I know everyone,” she said.

MacDonald would do the job even if he received no payment. “I have two young children and this gives them a reason to admire me.”

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