KAWARTHA LAKES-Proposed new legislation tabled by local MPP and Minister of Labour Laurie Scott doesn’t sit well with the International Association of Firefighters. “I’m certainly disappointed, I don’t feel that we had fair consultation on it.” Fred LeBlanc, District VP International Association of Firefighters told Kawartha 411. “I had probably ten minutes, maybe 15 minutes at most with the Minister to discuss these issues.”
The issue is new legislation tabled by Scott around so-called “double-hatters”, firefighters who work full time for one fire service, while “volunteering” in another. Scott says the proposed amendments to the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, 1997 (FPPA), introduced as part of the 2018 Ontario Economic Outlook and Fiscal Review (Bill 57), would:
- Allow municipalities to resist any pressure to dismiss professional firefighters for “doublehatting”.
- Ensure that professional firefighters cannot face association penalties for “double-hatting”.
The protection from discipline for “double-hatting” would apply effective November 15, 2018 (the day Bill 57 was introduced) regardless of whether the work as a volunteer firefighter occurred before that date. “When I was first elected, one of the first speeches I gave in the Ontario Legislature in 2004 was about double hatters. It is an issue that has effected rural Ontario for decades, in 2005, the municipality of Kawartha Lakes lost 15 “double hatters” in that year alone.” Scott told Kawartha 411. ” As Minister of Labour, the number one issue that was raised with me at Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) this past August was about double hatters. Rural and small municipalities rely on double hatters to help keep their communities safe. Double hatters are professional fire fighters who choose to volunteer to help keep their communities safe. These heroes should not be persecuted and penalized simply for volunteering in their community. Bill 57 gives volunteer firefighters the protection they deserve.”
But Leblanc disagrees. “It’s just not a smart way to build a fire service, relying on someone else’s firefighters.” Leblanc says. “You may call it volunteering but it has a harmful effect in certain situations. When it’s out there in rural Ontario where they don’t have any full time firefighters, there’s no issue, it’s not having a negative impact on us as a union, then ok if that’s what you want to do then go ahead and do it but you do so at your own risk because you are now facing more exposure, more opportunity for PTSD and we don’t know what’s going to happen with repsect to who is going to pay the bill on that.”
Scott says that’s not the case. “The suggestion that volunteer firefighters would not be covered by WSIB is misleading and false. Similar suggestions were made in 2004 media reports and WSIB issued a statement to clarify that firefighters remain eligible for WSIB regardless of where their service takes place.”
Leblanc also points to situations where the professional firefighters may not be available to aid smaller communites during large-scale emergencies, leaving residents at risk. “When there’s a significant event like the ice storm, we recalled all available firefighters. Well that creates a problem for the smaller communties who rely on them as volunteers. You can’t rely on two-hatters for things like that.”
Leblanc feels the word “volunteer” is misleading. “I really question the whole word “volunteer” that’s what I think is driving this issue.” Leblanc Explains. “We are far from the Norman Rockwell painting of a volunteer firefighter runniing out of the hardware store, grabbing his helmet and his boots and rushing to someone’s aid. They are highly organized, unionized, they have collective agreements and in some cases they are getting paid as much or more hourly as the full time firefighters in that same community.”
The City of Kawartha Lakes currently uses approximately a dozen “double-hatters”. Chief Mark Pankhurst says he doesn’t see the problem with it. “In some areas it is quite a contentious issue but our professional firefighters have always got along with the double-hatters and there’s a mutual respect there.” Pankhurst told Kawartha 411, “There hasn’t really been an issue.”
Leblanc thinks the Conservatives are going too far. ” I think they are overstepping their bounds by going in and telling an organization we don’t like these particular rules we are going to tell you it doesn’t matter if it harms your association, we are going to tell and you can’t do anything about it, I think that goes too far.”
And according to LeBlanc double-hatting de-values the entire profession. “If you are in your full time City saying I need X amount of dollars, benefits, pension all that stuff to do this job and that’s what proper compensation for the job is, then you go over to municipality B and we need to do it for sometimes a lesser rate but no benefits, no pension and questionable workers compensation coverage if you get injured or worse and it just doesn’t do anything to assist the local (union)that’s there, which is usually a smaller local.”
Leblanc says he is going to ask to be heard at the committee discussion on the legislation before it passes. “I am going to apply to have standing at the committe and make an appeal to the commitee.” Leblanc states. “I don’t know if that will be successful just given the current state of politics and the overwhelming majority of the PC government but I need to do what I need to do for our unit.” It that doesn’t work, the union will seek legal counsel. “We are looking at it from a legal perspective as well. Legal counsel has not gotten back to us, they want to wait and see what it looks like in it’s final form and we will take things from there.”
If the legislation is passed Leblanc thinks it will open the floodgates of some services taking advantage of the “volunteers” to save money. “I think when you get in a little bit deeper and talk about departments maybe relying to heavily on “double-hatters” it becomes a problem. I’m sure that once this legislation passes they won’t be the only municipality that goes out and tries to actively recruit our members.”