Fire fighters’ grievances fundamentally flawed

I sat in on part of the arbitration hearing for the firefighters’ grievances on Dec 13.  My remarks to the NRT below are based on my personal observations, the NRT reports, and the resources I referred to, here:

The union’s case before the arbitration hearing is based on flawed ideas such as:

  • the collective agreement should determine whether and how we deliver fire suppression services – in fact, the elected representatives of the community should determine these matters
  • that the town should have doubled the number of full time fire fighters to 20 or more in order to increase the safety of the firefighters themselves during fire suppression – in fact, volunteer fire fighters can provide provide for each other’s safety just as well.
  • that the recent attrition in fire fighters to four union members is contrary to “minimum staffing requirements” of the collective agreement – in fact, the only minimum staff requirement applies to the case in which the town elects to bring in volunteer fire fighters; as the town hasn’t done so, no such staff minimum staff requirement applies.
  • that more full time firefighters are needed as a back up to the paramedic service and that our police untrained to evaluate fire risks and advise people on their safety during off-hours – in fact, there are other ways to provide these services, including providing the police with basic fire or medical training, or the use of volunteer fire firefighters or paramedics.

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Full letter to the NRT:

The union’s case in the on-going hearings for the fire fighters’ grievances is fundamentally flawed.

It isn’t the role of the collective agreement or a labor relations arbitrator to determine whether or how a town provides fire suppression – that should be the sole responsibility of the elected representatives of the people who are paying for and receiving the service.

In fact, Jeff Nestor, a union advocate, testified in the Dec 13 hearing that the union had originally asked for a minimum staffing clause of 20 full time firefighters, which not only would have doubled the force at the time, but would have forced the town to maintain those positions in perpetuity.

The union’s approach was, unfortunately, typical over-the-top negotiating strategy, in which after asking for the sun and the moon, it then claims to be reasonable by proposing to settle for just the moon.

In this case, the moon that union wants is a minimum staffing clause of at least 8 full time firefighters.

Even though there is no such minimum staffing clause in the contract, the union is now asking the arbitrator to make the historic staffing trend of 8 or 9 union members binding on the town.

Such a decision now would not only force the town to hire, since as the unionized force has dwindled to four, it could take away the ability of the elected representatives of the people to determine the number of the full-time staff permanently.

The union is also taking advantage of confusion that persists around arbitrator Kaplan’s ruling in 2014.

In fact, although that decision did grant the town a right to bring in volunteers, that right was made conditional on, among other things, a minimum staffing requirement (the collective agreement and arbitration decisions are available on my blog: danielbanks.ca).

Critically, in the 2014 decision, the staffing requirement doesn’t apply unless the town brings in volunteers, a nuance that a casual observer would not realize from Nestor’s testimony about it.

The union argues that it needs the additional protection of a minimum staffing requirement because, as the NRT reported last week, Jeff Nestor claimed under oath that the town “was setting a path to eliminate the fire service,” and the language proposed by the town “won’t even be a protecting clause.”

Both claims are incorrect.

In fact, the town proposed a “no lay-off” clause that would have guaranteed that existing staff could serve out their full careers, thereby providing all the job security these individuals could need.

In exchange, the town requested the ability to add volunteers to the force, and thereby achieve its desired fire service model over many years after surplus full-time fire firefighters retire.

Although the town made a reasonable proposal that respected job security, Nestor testified that the union “could never agree” to the terms offered by the town.

Such intransigence does not reflect good faith bargaining in which any aspect of a collective agreement must be open for give and take.

(Nestor was incorrect to claim that no-contracting-out clauses “are a staple” of collective agreements for fire fighters, when in fact, the no contracting out clause is unique to Deep River.

Perhaps he meant to say, as the president of the Ontario-wide fire fighters’ union testified two weeks earlier, that minimum staffing clauses exist more commonly in smaller towns with composite fire departments.)

In second line of argument, the union has been calling the police to testify about lack of their lack of training to evaluate fire risk or provide medical services.

The union’s implication that the town should be forced to hire more full-time firefighters to perform these functions is fundamentally flawed as well.

Since in other municipalities volunteer firefighters are routinely trained for these functions, we could do that here as well, in principle.

Or we could negotiate with our police services board to have our officers trained in these areas.

Or if more paramedics are needed, then we could get more paramedics.

In any case, we don’t need more full-time firefighters.

Finally, I’m optimistic that a long-term partnership with Canadian Nuclear Laboratories’ fire department will render these issues obsolete in the future.

Daniel Banks, former Deputy Mayor, Deep River, 2011-2014

CNL-deal a chance for Deep River fire to move past disputes

Image: Deal-signing ceremony between Deep River and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (credit: Town of Deep River).

Deep River’s game-changing deal with Canadian Nuclear Labs to operate our fire department will not only benefit both parties, it should help us get past the disputes covered in the North Renfrew Times (NRT) last week being fought out before a grievance arbitrator and the Ontario Labor Relations Board. In the proceedings reported, the union’s dismissal of democratic process is insulting to our community and specifically to the many who voted in the 2016 survey.

My remarks to the NRT are below. The resources I referred to are here:

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Congratulations to the Deep River Council for achieving a game-changing agreement with CNL to operate our fire department!

We’ll get better fire protection as a result of leveraging CNL’s expertise, and this cooperation also opens opportunities to get past some of the disputes about the department’s current operations.

The problems that have led to arbitration over union grievances, and to a hearing before the Ontario Labor Relations Board boil down to the union seeking protection for one thing: positions, not people.

Protection for the individual firefighters was not in dispute in either of the rounds of bargaining that ended up in arbitration in 2014 and 2017, because the town offered a “no lay-off” clause that would have enabled our fire fighters to serve out their careers.

The union’s position has been that a “minimum staffing” clause is needed instead, which would require the town to replace these individuals whenever they leave, thereby forcing the town to maintain firefighter positions in perpetuity.

Such a minimum staffing clause “protects the association,” as the president of the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA), Carmen Santoro, testified at the Friday hearing.

So its not about protecting people at all; its about self-perpetuation of an institution.

Society may tolerate self-interested behaviour to a point, but as oil producers, drug-makers and financiers are beginning to realize, profit-seeking at the expense of society results in a bad reputation that hurts them in the long-term.

So too, should the OPFFA realize that its insistence on maintaining a high number of positions in Deep River against the will and best interests of the residents will only hurt it in the long run.

Santoro’s dismissal of the referendum-format “survey” held in 2016 just adds to the damage to the union’s reputation.

More residents voted in the 2016 survey (36 percent, with 1255 responses) than in the 2011 by-election (25 percent).*

In 2016, 1255 residents, a very large and statistically significant sample, voted 9 to 1 against the fire protection model that the union is now trying to pressure to town to implement.

Furthermore, if supporters of the union’s position didn’t like how the town positioned the question, they had time to voice their opinions and influence the results.

The survey’s results are in fact a true reflection of an enduring community sentiment that goes back earlier than the 2010 election, when I campaigned on restructuring the fire department.

I knocked on every house in Deep River, and only found a handful of people who objected to changing to a volunteer fire department.

The council has a sufficient democratic mandate to shut the department down, if necessary, to get to a sustainable solution.

Fortunately, the deal just signed with CNL means that better solutions are now possible.

As the parties work together on a long-term partnership, no doubt they will consider the mutual benefits of merging the departments.

We wouldn’t be the first nuclear host community to be serviced by the same fire department as the nuclear facility: the Los Alamos Fire Department serves both the National Lab and the surrounding county.

Merging the departments might finally allow us to move beyond the limitations that have plagued our fire department for over 30 years.

And with nuclear-grade fire fighters ready to respond, we can forget about whether our guys were carrying pagers or not.

Documents referred to in this letter will be available on my blog: danielbanks.ca

Daniel Banks

former Deputy Mayor of Deep River, 2011-2014

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* The democratic legitimacy of the 2011 by-election (at 25 percent participation) was deemed enough not only to elect two Councillors (Katie Robertson, Ian Ingram), but two more runner-ups were later appointed to fill vacancies (Bob McLaren, and Ed Cochrane), largely because of their participation as candidates in the election.

Game-changing agreement signed with Canadian Nuclear Laboratories to manage the fire department

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) and the Town of Deep River have an historic interim agreement that will see CNL’s Chalk River Laboratories (CRL) Fire Operations provide training, organization and management of the Town’s fire services until June 30, 2018 (media release). Its clear from the media release that both parties see this as a first step toward a longer term partnership that will benefit everyone.

In my words, these benefits could be:

  • Better fire protection for Deep River, leveraging CNL’s resources
  • Opening new possibilities to address the systemic problems with the Deep River fire department
  • Providing opportunities for CNL’s fire operations to earn a greater variety of experience in emergency response by supporting of Deep River’s fire department.

As the long-term partnership is developed, no doubt the parties will see and consider the mutual benefits of merging the departments, which as I have mentioned before, could lead to the sustainable solution that Deep River needs.

Indeed, there are other examples of fire departments that service major nuclear labs as well as the areas around them. The same fire department that services Los Alamos National Lab (USA), for example, also services the entire county around it.

Also, as background, let’s remember that AECL and the town of Deep River have had a mutual aid agreement, which would allow CNL to send firefighters to help in Deep River in the event of an emergency, just like Laurentian Hills has been doing.

Read news coverage from CBC

Firefighters Appeal Cuts to Labor Relations Board

image: Arbitration hearing at the Deep River Library. Not pictured is the capacity crowd of interested Deep Riverites, as well as several firefighters from other communities (credit: Vance Gutzman, NRT Oct 18, 2017).

In a desperate attempt to force Deep River to double the present number of firefighters, the firefighters’ union has appealed to the Ontario Labor Relations Board, with public hearings to start today (Oct 13) in the library.

Our firefighters still haven’t gotten the message that our community wants and needs a composite fire fighting force that provides better safety in addition to being more cost-effective. The community’s vote of 89 percent in favor of seeking a reduction in the full-time staff to two and adding a large number of volunteers, has meant nothing to the union. Continue reading Firefighters Appeal Cuts to Labor Relations Board

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. Continue reading Ontarians Burned by Firefighters

Why can’t the people choose their fire protection service?

The Pembroke observer reports the continuing fear-mongering by the firefighter’s union:

“Travelling in teams of five throughout town, the [firefighters] group handed out cards stating how town council has recently cut the number of its firefighters in half, and changes in the work schedule means the fire hall is closed 75 per cent of the time.”
September 9, 2017, http://www.thedailyobserver.ca/2017/09/09/deep-river-in-dispute-with-fire-dept

I sent the following letters to the Observer and NRT in response.

Why can’t the people choose their fire protection service? Continue reading Why can’t the people choose their fire protection service?