By Laura King
June 2, 2015 – Ontario Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek and I have seldom seen eye to eye in the four years that he has been the province’s chief fire officer. That’s hardly a surprise to many of you, who know my position on openness, transparency and good government.
Wieclawek, you may have heard yesterday (you can read our news story here), is leaving the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management June 19.
There had been rumours of Wieclawek’s departure for weeks – there was talk when I was in Dryden in April, where the fire marshal spoke to delegates to the Northwest Response Forum, and during the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC) conference last month in Toronto.
I figured the gig was up when Wieclawek bowed out of the Fire Fighting in Canada/OAFC golf tournament a month ago – he was to be my guest, an olive branch of sorts.
It is imperative that those in positions of authority earn credibility and respect from their peers: to be blunt, I’m not sure this fire marshal ever did.
I give Wieclawek credit for trying, particularly in the last 18 months or so. It isn’t easy speaking at conferences in front of hundreds of chief officers who sit, arms crossed, critical of every word, sometimes snickering.
I also give him credit for trying to deal with media – particularly a certain trade-magazine editor! – in a timely fashion, trying to be open, even encouraging me to call or email him directly rather than go through the gatekeepers in communications. He was, I believe, often stymied by government, his hands tied.
Wieclawek had been appointed Jan. 28, 2011, shortly after the release of the so-called risk workbook to help municipalities identify the hazards in their communities and then match the level of service to those risks. The project was essentially scrapped and re-worked over the next couple of years.
During Wieclawek’s tenure, there have been flip flops on issues such as sprinklers and fire drills in homes for vulnerable occupants. The OFM has failed to offer the necessary courses and training for fire officers – its certification program manager, Doug Goodings, is also departing, a big loss for the office.
For me, the relationship with the fire marshal got personal back in 2012, after I reported on and blogged about the Meaford trial in December 2011, particularly the testimony of an OFM inspector who I said was ill-prepared for his cross examination by defence lawyer Norm Keith, a pit bull who chewed up and spat out the prosecution’s case against the Meaford and District Fire Department – all charges were either dropped or dismissed.
The OFM wasn’t happy with my reporting.
I saw the fire marshal in May 2012 at a retirement soiree for Toronto Fire Services Chief Bill Stewart – it was an awkward moment outside the main hall, between speeches – and, aware of the OFM’s dissatisfaction, I suggested that we talk soon. I suggested, again, when I saw Wieclawek a couple of days later, at the OAFC conference in Toronto, that we chat. We agreed to talk later that day and the OFM arranged for a meeting room.
I was well prepared to stand my ground about my reporting. I wasn’t prepared for a three-on-one – Wieclawek, the assistant deputy fire marshal of the time, the OFM’s communications person, and me.
I almost walked out – I could sense what was coming – but I was too curious. It wasn’t a pleasant meeting. We agreed to disagree about what could be reported from a trial (I had covered courts for years – I knew the rules), and on freedom of speech, essentially. I agreed to reach out to the OFM for comment on matters that concerned it, and the fire marshal agreed to be more open to my calls and questions and to respond within a reasonable timeframe.
That never happened. I called and emailed and was stymied by the gatekeepers. That’s how government works.
I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the technical committee hearings on sprinklers in vulnerable occupancies (government rules), and I never got details I repeatedly requested about the review of the provincial incident management system that’s happening as we speak, among other things.
Oftentimes in the work world, people who are good at what they do are promoted into positions for which they are not well suited; teachers become principals, reporters become editors, hockey players become coaches. Wieclawek had big shoes to fill – those of predecessors Pat Burke and Bernie Moyle.
Wieclawek joined me and some colleagues in Dryden for dinner several weeks ago. He talked about his children and the perspective they have given him on life.
Already there are rumours about where Wieclawek will land. I wish him well.
As for the interim fire marshal, Jim Jessop knows how to work the media – he did so spectacularly well on the sprinklers file and has developed strong working relationships with particular reporters. He may have to be a bit more careful in his new role.