Why one Ontario town has been battling its own fire department

Deep River has, per capita, the most expensive fire department in Ontario — it’s hoping that new legislation will allow it to cut costs without putting residents at risk
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on November 30, 2018
a truck parked at a fire station in Deep River, Ontario
Salary expenses for Deep River firefighters will work out to nearly $700 per household in 2019, making it per capita the costliest fire department in Ontario. (David Rockne Corrigan)

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DEEP RIVER — Joan Lougheed left Burlington for Deep River six years ago, drawn by what she calls its “unique charm.” When it was founded in 1944, for employees working at the nearby nuclear facility as part of the Manhattan Project, Deep River boasted amenities you wouldn’t typically find in a small town — a ski hill, a marina, and even a symphony orchestra.

And professional emergency services were taken care of, too. The company provided them until 1959, when the town was incorporated.

“As a company town, fire and police and emergency services were provided by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited,” says Lougheed, who in 2014 was elected mayor of Deep River, which is in Renfrew County, about 200 kilometres northwest of Ottawa. “And then it divested itself when the town became incorporated, and they became part of the services that were gifted to the town.”

Over the years, though, that gift has become a white elephant for the town of 4,100. Salary expenses — which will work out to nearly $700 per household in 2019, making it per capita the most expensive fire department in Ontario — have been a primary focus of Lougheed during her term, which ends this week. But because of binding arbitration agreements, communities such as Deep River often find themselves with few options.

“Nobody could imagine, at that time, that those services would be impacted to the extent they are in terms of increasing costs, increased regulation and legislation,” Lougheed says. “It’s had such an impact for rural Ontario.”

Firefighters, like police, are prohibited from striking, so contract disputes are resolved through a provincial interest arbitration system. According to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, these arbitrators tend to base their awards on pay levels at other emergency-services departments across the province — meaning that if one or two municipalities give big pay raises to firefighters, arbitrators will replicate those awards elsewhere. This, it says, has led to police and fire-services wages rising at a faster rate than those of other unionized labour. “Over the last number of years,” says Pat Vanini, executive director of AMO, “fire services tend to get arbitrated awards at least 1.5 to 2 per cent higher than other unionized labour in the same municipal government.”

One analysis by AMO suggested that if police and fire personnel had received the same wage increases as other municipal employees between 2010 and 2014, Ontario municipalities would have saved $485 million. In Deep River, fire services are the most expensive item on the budget.

Some believe that even as firefighters’ wages have gone up, their usefulness has gone down. According to a 2015 Fraser Institute report, “Between 1997 and 2012 the number of firefighters increased by 36.3 per cent, while the reported number of fires fell by 41.4 per cent” in Ontario. (At the time, the Canadian branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters called the report “misleading.”)

Deep River currently employs the equivalent of 6.7 full-time firefighters (by comparison, Petrolia, population 5,700, has one full-time firefighter and more than 30 volunteers). In a report prepared by the municipality ahead of a 2017 arbitration hearing, Deep River pointed out that, of the 17,520 total staffing hours in 2015, only 211 were spent responding to calls — approximately 1.2 per cent of paid on-duty time. Since 2015, the town reports, the number of fire calls that were actually fires “could be counted on one hand,” and fire losses in the community rarely exceed a few thousand dollars per year. The IAFF, which worked with the local union on two arbitrations, takes issue with this characterization, telling TVO.org that the town “purposely reduces what their fire service does” — for example, it hasn’t been dispatching it to medical emergencies and highway-vehicle accidents — “and then uses that as the argument to downsize the number of fire fighters.”

But efforts to decrease the size of the department have mostly failed. In 2014, for example, the town proposed reducing the department from nine full-time firefighters to two through attrition. While the arbitrator did allow for a reduction to eight — and the addition of volunteers — the original request was denied. (The first class of volunteer recruits will graduate later this year.)

In 2016, residents voted overwhelmingly in favour of adopting a more aggressive negotiating position. The town said that if it were not permitted to reduce its force, it would consider effectively eliminating the fire service altogether by moving to an education- and prevention-only model. That effort, though, also failed, and the town ultimately decided against changing its system.

The town has since signed a three-year agreement with Canadian Nuclear Laboratories that will see the CNL fire-operations team provide support — previously, Deep River had to rely on neighbouring municipalities for assistance in the case of structure fires, which require 16 on-scene firefighters for “moderate-risk occupancy buildings,” such as residential homes.

“While Deep River remains the most expensive fire service per capita in the province, and probably the country,” says Richard McGee, the town’s chief administrative officer, “for the first time they’re going to have a fully-functional fire service capable of fighting a fully-involved structural fire without the assistance of outside resources.”

Deep River may find itself in a better negotiating position when that fire-services agreement comes up for renewal in 2021. Schedule 18 of Bill 57, which the Progressive Conservative government tabled in November as part of its fiscal update, would amend the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, 1997, replacing three-member arbitration boards with single arbitrators and adding “new criteria to be taken into consideration in an arbitrator’s decision,” including the economic health of a municipality and a comparison of collective-bargaining settlements reached in the same (and comparable) municipalities. AMO, which has long advocated for changes to the interest arbitration framework, says this is a positive step toward ensuring outcomes that take local factors into account.

While the new agreement will not likely reduce fire-service costs in Deep River in the short-term, there is hope that it will at least keep them steady. And the addition of volunteers will make it a fully functional service, according to Mayor Lougheed.

“We weren’t prepared to go to the extreme. We weren’t prepared to put the people of the town at risk. It was vital that we looked for a solution that manages costs and provides full-suppression services. So it’s a win-win situation for everyone,” she says.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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