UPDATE: Firefighters ‘eating’ too much of the municipal pie, says MacDonald

UPDATE: Firefighters ‘eating’ too much of the municipal pie, says MacDonald
Mark MacDonald addresses reporters outside city hall Friday.

CORNWALL, Ontario – One city councillor thinks it’s time to start looking at hiring part-time firefighters to fill the ranks of absent full-time people who are helping to drive up the cost of the service.

And another one believes firefighters are taking too much.

At a budget meeting Friday Coun. Mark MacDonald, a former firefighter, likened the skyrocketing costs of the fire service to people sitting around a table eating a pie.

“The firefighters might not want to hear this…they keep eating more and more. We have to come up with solutions to solve that,” he said. “The difference between a pig and a human being is that a pig knows when to stop eating.”

Jason Crites, president of the Cornwall Professional Firefighters Association, took issue with MacDonald’s comments.

“I hope people associate that comment with the person who said it and realize it’s not everyone saying the same thing,” he said. “It’s embarrassing and we need to move on from it.”

Coun. Andre Rivette said it doesn’t make sense for the fire department to staff a particular shift with 14 people, to ensure that a minimum of 10 firefighters are available to fight a fire.

The unique, and some say expensive, situation within the fire service is that there can be as many as three firefighters off at any given time and there has to be an adequate number available to douse any particular blaze.

Rivette suggested when the people are not off, the city is paying for additional firefighters on a shift that it doesn’t need.

He has argued against filling four vacant positions within the service (one per shift), but fire chief Rick McCullough pointed out that if the positions are not staffed then overtime costs will “go through the roof.”

“The reason we need 10 men is to get the job done. If we go below 10 men…we could be in a situation where we are compromised,” said McCullough. “Why do we need the extra four? To allow them to take the time off.”

Rivette was having none of it.

“I’m not saying you don’t need 10 men. I’ve got a problem is that you have 14 men that the city is paying for,” he said. “We have to start taking a look at temporary firefighters to not have them in there when they’re not needed.”

Mayor Leslie O’Shaughnessy said perhaps it’s time to change policies within the fire service that limits the number of people off at any given time.

“Sure, you’re going to have maybe a little bit of overtime, but not the cost of four firefighters,” he said.

McCullough pointed out that not only are men off on vacation, but some are on sick leave and receiving training.

“There will be challenges” in reducing the number of people off during a shift, he said.

“But there are challenges in every department,” said MacDonald, who has railed against the skyrocketing costs of protective services in Cornwall, which includes the fire department.

“What we’re talking about is having less people off at a time,” said Coun. Maurice Dupelle. “We’re not going to change the level of service for our (city).”

The city’s budget committee has defered a decision on shelving the new hires – essentially leaving the situation in limbo for now.

Coun. Carilyne Hebert argued for keeping the number of people within the department, and suggested the city is falling behind on fire prevention.

She pointed to other larger communities like Aurora and Guelph that have fewer fires than Cornwall.

Crites agreed and suggested Cornwall is well above the average when it comes to the number of fires in the city.

Cornwall has the dubious distinction of having 32 fires for every 10,000 structures in the city. Cornwall has about 24,000 structures, Crites added.

“That puts us in the range of cities two-and-a-half times our size,” he said, adding more fires puts pressure on the service to pay for the firefighters who are on the job, or get called in for overtime.

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