Throughout all of rural and suburban Ontario, the provincial fire service depends on volunteer firefighters.
These are men and women who offer to be available at a moment’s notice to respond to emergencies in their community. They receive either no pay or a modest honorarium, and they give uncounted hours to training and preparedness, as well as to maintaining their stations and equipment. They visit schools and raise funds or collect food for causes that matter to their communities. They leave their families in the dead of night, during a holiday meal, a birthday celebration, or on a Saturday morning.
The provincial government calculates that there are nearly 19,000 volunteers serving in 410 of the 441 fire departments, meaning a full 90 percent of Ontario’s municipalities count on volunteer responders.
It seems that some welcome relief is in store for Ontario’s volunteer firefighters and the communities that rely on them thanks to the new government’s decision to repeal Fire Certification Regulation 379/18.
This regulation was developed in response to three separate coroner’s inquests which recommended that the province establish mandatory credentials specifically for the trainers, inspectors, and fire prevention officers at work in the fire service. However, with little notice or public consultation, Regulation 379/18 went miles further by requiring all volunteer firefighters to complete more than 225 hours of training within a two-year internship period.
The decision by Michael Tibollo, the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, to put the regulation on hold was a reasonable step. The Minister has opted to pause the implementation of a regulation that was rushed and filled with significant consequence. In the meantime, volunteer and full-time firefighters can continue to train to the National Fire Protection Association standards.
As mentioned, the key benefit in cancelling this regulation seems to have been consideration of the recruitment challenges faced by volunteer departments. But there is more that can be done by the province to support the many municipalities that are struggling to attract new volunteers to meet their departments’ needs.
In part, recruitment has been made difficult because of something commonly referred to as the two-hatter issue. Since 2001, the union for full-time firefighters has been expelling (or threatening to expel), disciplining, or fining any fire fighter who is caught serving as volunteer firefighter. They have publicly encouraged their members to engage in bullying and harassment of the two-hatters in their midst. Where such campaigns fail, the OPFFA has rescinded the membership of the offender. As a closed-shop union, the OPFFA can demand that a municipality terminate any non-member from his or her full-time firefighter employment.
Such actions should be considered deplorable in a province and country that values the freedom of association and the right to be free from discrimination and harassment in the workplace. The OPFFA has forced over 1,500 firefighters to resign their volunteer positions and they continue threaten and fine others who will not leave their positions. The demise of volunteers seems central to the OPFFA’s expansion efforts.
We need to protect our brave full-time firefighters who want to serve also as a volunteer. This is the right thing to do and will help ensure that there is a larger pool of qualified and willing volunteers for our volunteer departments to recruit from.
Since 2001, various unsuccessful attempts have been made at developing legislative protection for these two-hatters. To date, Ontario is one of only two jurisdictions in Canada that doesn’t provide that protection in law. The Ford government should take urgent action to offer protection to two-hatters and to achieve what previous governments have been either unwilling or unable to achieve. Our brave and dedicated first responders deserve nothing less.