The union representing Greater Sudbury’s volunteer firefighters took to the streets to blame the city for their dwindling numbers on Thursday by protesting outside of Tom Davies Square.
In response, Fire Chief Joseph Nicholls told Sudbury.com the city is doing its best to roll out new provincially mandated training requirements and that volunteerism is down across the nation.
There are currently 214 volunteer firefighters operating out of the city’s 18 volunteer fire stations.
During a media conference on Thursday pre-empting the afternoon’s protest, Christian Labour Association of Canada provincial representative Matthew Walchuk said the city has been allocated to have 350 volunteer firefighters.
Nicholls countered that the 350-member figure has been bandied about in past documents, but that they’ve only ever reached a peak of approximately 270.
“There’s no expectation how you would ever be able to get the number,” he said, adding that some fire halls don’t have enough of a population base to draw from to get the members they require.
Last year, it was reported that half of the municipality’s 18 halls don’t have the minimum number of firefighters required to be considered protected and covered by fire underwriters, which is 15.
Stations that currently fall short included Whitefish at 13 volunteers, Beaver Lake (four), Dowling (11), Levack (10), Val Caron (13), Capreol (11), Falconbridge (seven), Skead (three) and Coniston (14).
Although attracting enough volunteers has been a longstanding issue, Walchuk said it is becoming worse due to the city being “inflexible” in implementing new provincial training standards.
Plus, he said, there’s “no end in sight” to resolving their collective agreement with the city, which expired in 2019 and they’ll be seeking conciliation with the labour board in the near future. A ratification meeting was held earlier this year but failed to pass with a vote of 53 per cent against it.
At issue now are expanded training requirements for all Ontario firefighters the province introduced earlier this year. The legislation establishes a mandatory minimum standard and corresponding job performance requirements.
Currently, municipalities set their own requirements for fire services, with the city following National Fire Protection Association best practices. The city’s program includes a minimum of 40 hours of training, while the province’s new standard requires at least 220 hours.
The compliance date set by the province is July 1, 2026, by which time all firefighters must complete the program. That is, aside from approximately 70 volunteer firefighters in Greater Sudbury who will be grandfathered in and not require additional training to continue serving.
“I understand, I hear they’re concerned about the flexibility, but we’re developing the program on a timeline that has to be delivered,” Nicholls said.
“We only have so much capacity and we want to make sure this is done. … This is going to strengthen our fire service, it’s the right thing to do.”
Training hours are fully paid and consist of 10-hour sessions one day a month on a Saturday of each volunteer’s choosing. Of the 220-hour total, 40 hours can be done online whenever it suits the volunteer.
They complete skills and knowledge demonstrations throughout the training, and the province tests them at the end for a final sign-off.
“This is a good thing,” Nicholls said. “I know it’s going to be hard and it’s got some people concerned, but overall this is the right thing to do for this community.”
Walchuk argues the city has being too aggressive in having new hires meet the standard and is losing volunteers as a result.
“We have every expectation that we can reasonably meet the standard set ... in the timelines given,” he said. “We can do it in a way that minimizes or effectively removes any losses due to someone saying, ‘I can’t do that,’ or ‘I can’t make that commitment.’”
The city has been “inflexible” in accommodating volunteer firefighters seeking to qualify, Walchuk said, noting that of the 23 volunteer firefighters hired this year, six have already stepped down.
“Some of those individuals left because of the commitment that the employer is forcing upon them with these new fire certification standards,” he said.
Ward 3 Coun. Gerry Montpellier attended Thursday’s media conference, and relayed that he has heard from volunteers that the city’s training opportunities are too rigid.
He described the city as “dictating that this is how much time you’re going to spend at this, making it impossible for a working person to comply.”
The city has also lost 21 volunteer firefighters due to the city’s COVID-19 vaccine policy, Walchuk said, noting that while they typically lose between 30 and 40 people per year, they’ve lost 50 in the past 12 months.
“We will be below 200 (volunteers) within the first quarter of 2023,” he said, clarifying there will be no new intakes before that time while they continue to shed members.
Though he declined to offer specific detail regarding their demands as it relates to collective bargaining, Walchuk said the city’s freeze on promoting volunteers in recent years has become a problem.
“People have left for lots of reasons, officers have left and moved on, and those officers’ positions have not been replaced,” he said. “That’s a huge problem.”
Another complaint he relayed had to do with how members are paid for call-outs. When a member is called out in the middle of the night and subsequently called to stand down before they get to the hall, they have to decide whether to carry on to the station, sign in and get their two hours’ pay, or head back home.
During Thursday’s media conference, the City of Greater Sudbury’s upcoming report on the modernization of emergency service stations, including the potential consolidation of some, was raised, but Walchuk said there isn’t too much to say about it until it is released.
The document is expected to be presented to city council by the end of the year.
Although volunteer firefighters are called “volunteers,” they are paid for everything they do, Nicholls clarified, adding, “It’s important to understand that they are important to the system.”
A joint committee with the union has been struck to deal with volunteer recruitment and retention, and Nicholls said, “We are in an open round of recruitment at all times.”
“Service levels are not on the table, and we’re not changing the service levels,” he added. “I’m not having a conversation with council about changing the service.”
Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.