Ontarians Burned by Firefighters

The dire situation of the Town’s ineffective fire department is attracting attention beyond Renfrew County. See CBC coverage:

This is not just a Deep River problem. All taxpayers in Ontario are being hurt by an arbitration system that ignores our interest; the difference is this the problem manifests itself in other ways elsewhere, notably in rapidly rising compensation packages and minimum staffing clauses that prevent municipalities from using layoffs or attrition to manage costs.

Here’s a commentary that ties the Ontario-wide and Deep River problems together.

Ontarians Burned by Firefighters

They extinguish blazes in our homes, while stoking the slow-burn in our pocketbooks.

The Town of Deep River recently cut its firefighting force in half to manage rising costs, and this drastic step is a symptom of the fact that Ontarians have been getting burned by our emergency service providers.

Though police, firefighters, and paramedics are honorable professions, they have been driving up our property taxes for decades, by consistently securing annual compensation increases exceeding those given to other public-sector employees.

It’s hard to justify firefighters’ high salaries, which are now approaching that of university professors. Becoming a firefighter today requires little training beyond a high school diploma, and it’s much safer than is inferred from images of flame-engulfed buildings that pervade our culture. The rate of injury and death is much lower than in garbage collecting, which is a much lower-paid occupation.

Firefighters owe their sunshine list compensation packages to Ontario’s system of arbitrating their collective agreements, in which the cost to the taxpayer is not considered significant.

Deep River’s shocking situation is another unfortunate result of this unbalanced system.

With the highest per capita cost in the province, the town has been paying Cadillac prices for a clunker fire service.

The exorbitant expense is ultimately due to an arbitrator’s decision in 1984 that added a “no-contracting” out clause in the collective agreement that effectively forbids the use of volunteer firefighters. To maintain a 24/7 presence at the firehall, nine or ten full time firefighters are required – a steep requirement for a population of 4000.

But even this force is too small to perform fire suppression according to modern standards, which have increased significantly since 1984.

The people of Deep River had been stuck with their bad deal for 30 years, when in 2014 the town’s inability to protect its residents was increasingly obvious, the council felt it might finally have a chance to get relief through collective bargaining. After talks with the union yielded nothing, the matter went to arbitration.

The arbitrator listened to the safety concerns and offered an option to the town to add volunteers, but only under conditions that would lock in the town’s exorbitant costs for what could be forever.

No wonder that the people of Deep River voted 89 percent in a survey last year to give the Council a mandate to seek a reduction of the full-time force to two, and to add 24 volunteers to create a force that would provide both better protection and affordability.

Armed with the clearly expressed will of the people, the town went back to the arbitrator earlier this year; yet this democratic sentiment was not even acknowledged in his June decision, which merely reiterated the 2014 award.

The town then took the bold step of cutting firefighter positions, thereby giving up the 24/7 presence at the firehall and the illusion of safety that continuous presence provided.

This was the only option left for a reprieve.

Why, in a democratic society, can’t the elected officials simply implement the fire protection model that is right for their community and that its residents want?

Because lock-outs are illegal for emergency services, as are strikes, arbitration is compulsory to settle labor disputes. Arbitrators, therefore, are supposed to ensure that employees affected by the loss of the right to strike fare as well, although no better, than employees who can strike.

Instead, arbitrators’ collective decisions have created a labor relations environment for the emergency services in which municipalities are helpless to protect taxpayers, and employees have no incentive be satisfied with the compensation increases that other public service employees get.

Exacerbating the problem is a poorly worded Fire Protection and Prevention Act, 1997 which requires the arbitrators to consider, among other criteria, “the employer’s ability to pay in light of its fiscal situation.”

A prominent arbitrator in this field once told me that arbitrators would only consider “ability to pay” arguments persuasive if taxpayers have been reduced to eating grubs off trees. Otherwise, arbitrators take the position that the municipality should raise property taxes to pay for their generous awards to the unions.

The Legislative Assembly of Ontario was not trying to address a problem of grub-eating Ontarians in 1997; it was trying to address the imbalance that has clearly favored unions over taxpayers.

Twenty years later, the imbalance still needs to be corrected.