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Feb. 8, 2016, Toronto – It's a cliché, but it sure seems as if in Ontario, at least, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Three examples.

1. Four fire fatalities (and multiple injuries) in 24 hours in Toronto, three of them in a five-storey, Toronto Community Housing building inhabited by people 60 years and older; the other in a separate apartment fire.

The seniors building, according to Toronto Deputy Chief Jim Jessop, "fell through the cracks" when the province mandated in 2013 – after a slew of deaths in retirement homes – that certain facilities be retrofitted with sprinklers.

Which is an interesting way to put it: a cynical blogger might surmise that "fell through the cracks" is a euphemism given the volume of community housing units, the costs associated with retrofitting and political correctness. (Jessop had been instrumental in the retrofitting initiative as a deputy chief in Niagara Falls and London before moving to the Office of the Fire Marshal, then Toronto Fire Services.)

The Toronto building is 25 years old; when it was built, sprinklers were not required in all areas.

The province can enact legislation requiring any type of building to be sprinklered; it has chosen not to.

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2. It came as no surprise that the Ontario Ministry of Labour laid no charges against a trainer under whose watch a student drowned during a swift-water exercise in February 2015; the ministry has a year in which to do so.

In the case of Adam Brunt, a young, aspiring firefighter, and trainer Terry Harrison, the Occupational Health and Safety Act didn't apply because there was no employer-employee relationship.

That another student died under Harrison's tutelage in Point Edward, Ont., in 2010 had no bearing – Harrison was acquitted of those OH&S charges because, technically, the fire chief, not the trainer, was the supervisor of record; the municipality paid a fine.

Police months ago determined that no criminal charges would be laid. But as I said a year ago, how many students have to die before the training industry is regulated and simple standards become mandatory? More than two, apparently.

Sure, it's complicated; private training companies do not fall under the purview of the Office of the Fire Marshal, the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities or – we now know for sure –the Ministry of Labour.

But consider: both deaths happened at the same time of year, during the same type of training, conducted by the same trainer.

That, alone should warrant a thorough examination, but given the delay in the inquest into fire fatalities in East Gwillimbury and Whitby, which happened three and four years ago respectively, and the politically motivated timing of the release of the Elliot Lake inquiry recommendations, I'm not holding my breath.
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3. You're all familiar with the phrase local needs and circumstances.

So are the municipal politicians in a tiny region of Ontario, the Municipality of the United Townships of Head, Clara and Maria, which is home to about 230 people and, therefore, a very small tax base.

In fact, there are so few homes and buildings in the municipality off Highway 17, the Trans-Canada, west of Ottawa and east of North Bay, that there's no fire department – there is a municipal fire-safety officer, but no chief, no trucks, no suppression firefighters, no extrication.

Indeed, there hasn't been a fire service since 2008, when council rescinded the bylaw that created it, and sold the equipment as surplus. Simply, the cost outweighed the risk.

Which is a problem for the Ministry of Transportation because it owns and operates the province's highways, including the 30-kilometre stretch through Head, Clara and Maria.

As is the case in most other provinces, the ministry pays fire departments to respond to collisions on provincial highways and perform extrications. But where there are no fire departments, the ministry – which builds and maintains the highway – has relied on neighbouring departments to do so, in this case Laurentian Hills and Deep River.

As Laurentian Hills Fire Chief Kevin Waito told the Ottawa Sun after a collision on Jan. 15 to which the department responded, then was called back, "It's not really every other municipality in Renfrew County's problem to look after them."

Provincial police and ambulance services respond but fire, of course, is a municipal responsibility, paid for with municipal tax dollars.

Bit of a conundrum.

February 8, 2016
By Laura King


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