At a special meeting on Tuesday this week, city councillors held the fire and paramedic chief’s feet to the fire over his proposal for a major overhaul of Greater Sudbury’s fire service.
After weeks of contentious public meetings that seemed to do very little in the way of informing the public — and resulted in mostly anger and confusion on the part of both the public and city councillors — we finally got to see Chief Trevor Bain respond to some very pointed and direct questions from our elected officials.
What I found curious about this whole process was Bain’s decision to take his Fire Optimization Plan on the road before presenting the proposal to council.
The fire chief might be many things, but a public speaker he is not. Bain speaks fluent bureaucrat-eeze, a language most of us don’t speak nor understand. Replete with multi-syllabic jargon, it’s no wonder people left his presentations more confused than when they went in.
He took an admittedly complicated plan and presented it in such a way that no one, save a fellow bureaucrat, could make hide nor hair of what he was trying to say. Rather than informing the public — which was no doubt his intention — he confused voters and councillors alike.
I admit, I don’t understand why Bain took the approach he did. But it was gratifying to see council finally have the chance to hold him to account for the plan.
Most of the questions councillors asked were pointed and direct, and really got to the heart of the issue: Why does the city need to look at its fire service at all? Where are we deficient? And what can we afford to do?
Despite Ward 3 Coun. Gerry Montpellier’s belief that Bain’s proposal represents a loss of services for some areas of the city, it’s pretty clear the exact opposite is true.
Bain's proposal might need work, but that he even set out to tackle such a massive beast is admirable.
The Fire Optimization Plan proposal is not a loss of service at all — it’s a massive increase in services for outlying areas of the city. As I’ve written before, Greater Sudbury’s fire service is a kludge, a hodge-podge of fire services inherited 17 years ago when the City of Greater Sudbury was formed.
In truth, it is multiple services jammed together and forced to act as a single unit. It’s become clear that there is suspicion and competition between volunteers, career firefighters and paramedics.
Frankly, that there appears to be so much contention between our emergency services makes me nervous. These groups are supposed to work together to keep us safe. If they’re operating under a cloud of distrust, they’re not acting as a cohesive unit and cohesion is key when people’s lives, livelihoods and homes are at stake.
But back to the kludge, 17 years after amalgamation, it’s high time that kludge was replaced. And that’s exactly what Bain said he was trying to do: Create one, single service for our amalgamated city. A service where response times are uniform, regardless of what far-flung corner of the community you live in.
I’m sure we can all agree that achieving that goal — or as close to it as possible — should be a priority. There’s no question, whether you live in the downtown core, New Sudbury or Dowling, if you call for help, the men and women of our emergency services will rush to your aid. How long it takes them to get to you is a different question.
Can we afford to set up a system where response times are uniform across all 3,600 square kilometres of our city? Is that even necessary? Can we better distribute fire halls to improve response times? Where do we need to spend to improve the state of the equipment we have to tackle emergencies?
What mix of volunteer and career services both maximizes our ability to fight fires and doesn’t break the bank? Can we come up with a more efficient dispatch system so volunteer and career firefighters can respond equally quickly? Is there a better system to recruit and retain volunteers?
Bain’s proposal answers some, but not all, of these questions. Thankfully, council did the correct thing and sent the proposal back to the drawing board.
Overhauling our emergency service will take time. There will be more contentious meetings ahead. But the process is necessary. Much as Greater Sudbury is still suffering growing pains nearly 20 years after its birth, so, too, is our fire service. Much as there is competition and resentment between outlying areas of the city and the core, there is competition and resentment between services.
Hopefully, through this process, our emergency service (and the rest of us) can find a new sense of unity.
Mark Gentili is the managing editor of Northern Life and Sudbury.com.