Editor's Blog

Laura King
August 30, 2016
Written by
Aug. 30 2016, Toronto – Talk about a hornet’s nest. If you haven’t been following, the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA) is upset about a plan in Sault Ste. Marie to reduce the number of front-line, municipal firefighters by 20 over three years (that’s 25 per cent), through attrition, and increase the number of paramedics, given the volume of medical calls.

Back in November, Fire Chief Mike Figliola told council that if people in a burning structure aren’t out in two minutes, firefighters can’t save them.

The union takes exception to that.

The local web newspaper, SaultOnline, has been covering the story, which, over the weekend, caused a bit of a buzz after the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC) weighed in.

Stay with me.

Last Wednesday, SaultOnline ran a letter from the union to Sault Ste. Marie residents, in which president Rob Hyndman refutes Figliola’s two-minute statement.

“These comments are totally without basis in fact,” Hyndman said. “Properly trained fire service personnel, if adequately trained and resourced, can, and will, save lives if they arrive on scene quickly. “

Hyndman further said that both the NFPA – through 1710 – and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) agree that municipalities are adequately protected if specific numbers of firefighters arrive at a call within a certain time.

“NFPA and NIST are the gold standard for public safety,” Hyndman said, adding that 1710 is endorsed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the OAFC, the International Association of Fire Fighters and the OPFFA.

The OAFC takes exception to that.

Its president wrote a lengthy letter to the union and Friday evening, sent it to SaultOnline.

President Steve Hernen says in the letter that while the OAFC in 2013 adopted the NFPA professional-qualification standard to replace an outdated provincial curriculum, the association has no position on 1710 or other NFPA standards.

“Currently,” Hernen says, “OAFC members have not adopted the NFPA 1710 standard related to deployment and staffing levels or the findings of the National Institute of Standards and Technology staffing studies.”

Hernen says the union, in its conclusion that firefighters can indeed save people from burning structures if they arrive within the times set out in 1710, has failed to consider call-processing, turnout time and other factors.

Hernen also notes that councils, rather than fire chiefs, set levels of service, and, in Ontario, the Fire Protection and Prevention Act guides them.

It’s no secret that the union wants to protect firefighter jobs – that’s what unions do.

And it’s no secret that in Ontario and most other provinces, there is no four-firefighters-in-four-minutes response standard, rather politicians determine the service level based on local needs and circumstances. The gold standard, as one former fire chief said to me, may be the pinnacle but few municipalities can afford it for police, fire or ambulance. Minimum staffing standards are the norm in many locales – call it the zinc standard. (Incidentally, although Ontario’s fire fatality stats are nothing to boast about – 53 so far this year not including First Nations – the number is decreasing; as Figliola said, the union will fight the proposed cuts “and unfortunately they are going to go back to the age-old line of, ‘Babies will burn and mothers will die.’ But we know that doesn’t happen any more.”)

In a seemingly rushed story that SaultOnline posted later Friday, after the union responded to the OAFC’s letter, Hyndman notes that the OAFC cites the three-lines-of-defence stance that focuses on prevention rather than suppression; Hyndman correctly points out that the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal, is, in fact, reviewing that policy.

The union, late last year, called in former fire marshal Pat Burke for his opinion on the proposed firefighter cuts. Burke recommended a risk assessment, and supported 1710. He took issue with Figliola’s statement that the OFM has not accepted 1710, and noted that Figliola’s citing of the old provincial standard known as 10 in 10 is inaccurate: 10 in 10 was rescinded in 2010 and replaced by a risk-assessment document.

However, the OFM’s risk-assessment workbook – into which myriad resources had been sunk – was sidelined; and a subsequent integrated risk-assessment tool known as the IRM (which references 1710 but does not appear to accept or endorse it), is also under review.

“The IRM Web tool is not a staffing and deployment standard, solution or equation,” the OFM says in a Jan. 27 communiqué. “It does not assess, nor determine the number and type of fire suppression/emergency response resources required in a community.”

The whole mess was, perhaps, best summed up by Sault Ste. Marie councillor Paul Christian back in April.

“The province is very quick to tell us how many parking spaces we need to have in a parking lot,” the councillor said, “yet [for] something as important as fire services – there [are] no mandated issues.”

The issue – staffing (which is particularly sensitive at a time when many department are preparing budgets) – and the letters and subsequent responses, have chiefs across Ontario, and their locals, buzzing.

A hornet’s nest indeed.

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