Systemic issues plaguing Cornwall fire department: association

Systemic issues plaguing Cornwall fire department: association
Cornwall Fire Department

CORNWALL, Ontario – Frustrated firefighters are going public with a slew of problems they say are plaguing the Cornwall service – and driving up costs for taxpayers.

Chief among their concerns is the “dysfunction” with how the department has been run in recent years, said Cornwall Professional Firefighters Association president Jason Crites, in large part because of a revolving number of managers, an inability of city council to understand how the service should operate and ineffective fire prevention measures.

A “damning” report from August, 2013, authored by the Ontario Fire Marshal’s office, points to widespread issues within the fire service, Crites added.

“The City of Cornwall is not meeting minimum legislated requirements,” reads the report. “(A review) identifies inconsistencies and deficiencies in the delivery of fire protection services in the City of Cornwall.”

And while the report is more than a year old, Crites suggests very little has been done at the fire service to reverse the issues.

It appears clear, according to the report, that there was confusion among top brass at the fire service about just who is responsible for what, specifically when it comes to high-profile issues like fire prevention and efforts to reduce response calls.

“Interviews with the fire chief and deputy fire chief indicated that each believes that oversight of the fire prevention bureau is the other person’s responsibility,” reads the report. “The lack of oversight has resulted in systematic failure of this division of the department.”

The fire prevention bureau’s job is to educate the public on practices to prevent homes and property from going up in flames.

Perhaps as a result, Cornwall tops the Ontario list of fires per 10,000 structures with 32 – more than communities like Toronto (19), Ottawa (16) and Waterloo (15).

Firefighters are fed up, and are going public with their concerns.

“We’re trying to work with them…but this is telling them ‘You’ve got gross errors that need to be fixed.’ But they’re having silly conversations about… things that don’t even matter and it’s extraordinarily frustrating for the membership,” said Crites.

And that’s not all.

An Ontario Fire Marshal review team tasked with cataloguing fire safety inspections within the Cornwall department came up empty.

“The review team experienced difficulty determining the degree to which fire code compliance is achieved and enforced (in Cornwall),” reads a portion of its 2013 report. “There is currently no measure of results for the impact or effectiveness of fire prevention activities provided to the residents of the municipality.”

Firefighters are particularly frustrated that it is budget time, and city council appears intent on making changes to the policies within the department when it comes to staffing levels, in hopes of corralling the skyrocketing costs of salaries.

In particular, city council is taking issue with a unique, and some say expensive, policy that requires a particular fire platoon to be staffed with 14 people, to ensure there is a minimum of 10 available to fight a fire.

The balance of the individuals can often be found on vacation, long-term leave or training.

But the firefighters point to the fact that even 10 is not enough to fight a typical structure fire, and that overtime is almost always required when a household blaze is being doused.

“You run into overtime pretty quick. If it’s a structure fire we’re looking for help right away,” said Crites, suggesting if more was done to prevent fires, the cost of the department would decrease. “Fires are expensive when you have them, but they cause a lot of problems. Some of these streets…I can’t walk down Louisa Street without throwing a baseball and hitting a house that’s been on fire. It’s pretty hard to have decent property values when half the street has been boarded up or been hit by fire at some time.”

The National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) recommends that 15 firefighters combat a typical single-family home fire.

Cornwall gets close if all 14 are available for a shift, but the minimum is often 10.

“The people that are anti-us are going to say (structural fires don’t happen) very often, but it’s a hell of a lot more often than it should be,” said Bruce Donig, a member of the Cornwall firefighters association as well as the district two vice-president for the Ontario Professional Firefighters Association. “God forbid there’s ever an inquest.”

Donig points out that during inquests local fire service numbers are often contrasted against NFPA standards.

Problems are compounded at the department, said Crites and Donig, because of changes at the management level.

Since 2009 there have been two fire chiefs and four deputies, with more changes on the way.

The fire service is currently without a deputy chief, and chief Rick McCullough is retiring in a matter of weeks. Interviews have already begun for his replacement.

“We view some of this as the root cause for a whole bunch of what’s going on within our department,” said Donig. “We get that costs are of a concern to the council and the community at large, but the reality is we’re here to do a job. We want to do that job, we just wish the council would engage and start to address some of our concerns.”

And while there are a number of new faces around the council table, Crites is frustrated that many incumbents who retained their seats at the table are not addressing issues that are on the record, and significantly impeding the success of the service.

“Honestly, we want to work with them. We really do. That’s why we brought this stuff forward,” he said. “This is bad. I’m trying to not be overly dramatic, but we have a mess on our hands.

“At the council table – they have to start taking some responsibility.”

The 2013 fire marshal report points to the fact that municipal councils and fire service supervisors have a legal responsibility to ensure adequate levels of training are provided to staff – another area where Crites said the Cornwall department suffers.

“They have the responsibility to train us, but they’re running us so short of staff we have guys that are going to be officers that have received no officer training,” he said. “We’re way behind on our training.”

Crites and Donig, almost reluctantly, agree the association is likely to begin taking more of their messages to the public in order to drive home their points.

“It shouldn’t be incumbent on the association to address these issues,” said Donig. “Our hope was that we could work collaboratively at the managerial level to get these issues addressed. It’s asinine where a labour group would be asked to be on the vanguard of the notification.”

But that just might be what will happen.

“We’re obviously going to have educate the public because they don’t know what’s going on here,” said Crites. “(Council) knows what is happening…but everybody is running for cover instead of being leaders.”

Seaway News has reached out to all of city council for a response to this story – check here for more coverage.

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