|The IAFF’s Scott Marks says the association is working to have firefighters included in the same group as emergency medical responders for pandemic vaccinations, to broaden presumptive legislation and to make changes to the building code. Photo by laura king
A Our role in Canada is the same as any any labour union – to represent our members. The IAFF is structured somewhat differently than most labour unions in that locals do their own negotiations and different things so the evolution of the IAFF has been one of a parent organization that provides assistance in a broader sense on health and safety issues, helping to provide research for negations, strategies for negotiations and, obviously, the very important political arena.
And the IAFF, even though our role is to carry forward federal political issues and federal legislative issues, our role is also to train locals how to do that at the provincial and municipal levels, so we really function in a support role to our locals to try to provide assistance no mater what they’re faced with; a lot of our work is assisting them on things like press releases and how to get their message through to the public and the politicians.
Q There has been talk lately of unionizing some volunteer departments in Canada. Where does the IAFF stand on that issue?
A By other unions? The IAFF by mandate, within our constitution, organ-izes only full-time departments. There have been situations in Alberta where the labour boards have made rulings that we had to organize the full contingent [within the department], but I don’t think the IAFF’s focus has changed – constitutionally, our mandate is for full-time firefighters. But other unions have been, yes.
Constitutionally, it’s pretty clear to us and there have been discussions but at this point in time there is no desire to go there.
Q We’re here in St. John’s at the CAFC conference. What’s the IAFF’s relationship with the CAFC?
A The CAFC has a defined role to try to move some issues forward, such as mandatory sprinklers, and speaking with the OPFFA, for example, one of its issues is trying to broaden presumptive legislation rather than, for example, mandatory sprinklers.
Q Where do you guys fit into all of that?
A Our role with the CAFC and, generally speaking, between provincial [firefighter] associations and fire chiefs associations, the goal is to try to find common interests and work together on common interests and understand that there may be some things we don’t agree on, or we may have separate priorities.
The Ontario firefighters, I think, have kind have been misrepresented as not supporting sprinkler legislation and I know that’s not their position – they do support legislation but they do have concerns that some fire chiefs or city councils may utilize that as an excuse not to hire an appropriate number of firefighters. So that’s where the concern lies. You have to remember – our focus, yes we’re concerned with public safety issues, but as a labour organization representing our members, that’s really our main priority and there are situations where public safety and protecting our members combine. I think right now as far as what we’re lobbying for on federal and provincial levels, some of the provincial organizations may choose to take up the sprinkler cause but for the most part it’s not the issue for professional firefighters.
Q Where does the IAFF stand on presumptive legislation? For example, there’s no presumptive legislation here in Newfoundland.
A The IAFF has assisted as much as we can with the province here and it’s been very disappointing based on the fact that they’ve chosen to lag behind on this.
Presumptive legislation is still one of our key issues. Ontario is lagging behind some of the other provinces now so it continues to be one of the main priorities.
Q We’ve done some stories and covered extensively the IAFF fitness/wellness initiative. It seems to be a tough sell in some departments. How do you go forward with this and get more Canadian departments involved?
A I think you’ve got to sell it. The stall has come from funding, from cities that don’t want to spend any money on anything. And I think the sell is that research shows that implementing a wellness and fitness program saves money in the long term. To that extent, I think we see that not only in the fire service but in the way politicians approach a lot of their spending and budgeting – they are doing things that look good in the current budget or election cycle rather than investing to create programs or services that are going to save them money 10 or 20 years down the road. The bottom line is that it’s extremely hard to convince the municipalities to have the political will to [accept] the short-term expense for the long-term good.
Q We’re in St. John’s, where the department has had the 24-hour shift for years. Why the push back in Ontario?
A The push back is from the fire chiefs and, quite frankly, I don’t get it. I’m at a loss, because I think somewhere along the line someone has decided to draw a line in the sand and this is the issue they’re going to draw the line on. It’s some sort of philosophy bigger than this particular issue, but that may just be my sense of it.
I don’t understand because I think if they look at the 24-hour shift and the ability to go in and negotiate around it, the most common thing I’ve heard from fire chiefs and it is a valid concern, is training, and they can’t do training around the 24-hour shift.
I think they’re looking at it the wrong way; they have to look at how can I roll out training differently and what can I do to work it into the contract in a way that works for both sides?
That was my experience in Toronto; when we negotiated it the issue became training and we negotiated a system that worked for the department and for firefighters and ended up with a system under which people could be moved off shift into an eight-hour day a certain number of times a year, and after the first year, one of the biggest selling features to the department on this shift was that they were doing more training than they’d ever done in the past . . .
I think they’ve got to look beyond the rhetoric and see if there’s a way to change the culture that we’re entrenched in, the way we deliver the training . . . fire chiefs need to look at what they want to get done and see if there’s a door that can open and deliver them some more potential, because it is an opportunity to view your relationship with the union and with the firefighters differently.
A lot of unions go into negations with the 24 and say we want everything to be the same but we want a 24-hour shift. They have to be open, too. At the end of the day, coming from Ontario and from Toronto and the shift schedule we used to work, in my mind there’s no question that the 24 is a better shift for firefighters to be working.
Q Another other issue we’ve heard a lot about is two-hatters. It continues to be an issue in Ontario but only from time to time. If firefighters are two-hatting, you know they’re doing it and they’re not bothering anybody then it seems to be OK until something happens . . . What’s the IAFF position on that?
A The IAFF has a broad constitution and it’s applied down to the membership. The trial board procedure is a mechanism between members to resolve issues. Secondary employment is clearly stated and understood based on what has been determined by delegates at convention (there’s no question there are more U.S. delegates but there’s never been a convention resolution from the Canadian delegates to change it – there’s never been a Canadian local that put forward a resolution to change it). Obviously everyone doesn’t agree with it and in any democratic organization you have that.
What fosters [two-hatting] becoming an issue or not becoming an issue at any particular time is the circumstances within that geography. In the U.S. lately it has been an issue in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
With budget cuts and municipalities looking at other ways to deliver their fire service I think you’re going to see it be more of an issue, not less of an issue. The experience on the problems that have existed when you needed firefighters is somewhat different – the one we always like to bring up is the ice storm when all the firefighters were called back into Kingston [Ontario] and there was nobody around to staff all the outlying volunteer departments. It comes down to one thing – if you’re looking at a municipality using part-time firefighters and they’re relying on professional firefighters working part-time, then there’s something wrong. That’s the litmus test; if they’re relying on the full-time professional firefighters working in a part-time capacity, then there’s something wrong. If they need that level of reliance then they need to consider a full-time professional department or some other mechanism.
Q What issues are on the IAFF agenda in the next little while?
A From my office in Ottawa, we’re still very much concerned and lobbying hard for the public safety officer compensation benefit, which doesn’t exist here but does exist in the U.S., our pandemic issue, and issues around the building code.
We have serious issues around the way the building code works. If there’s something in the building code and we see it as a danger to firefighter safety, we cannot even make an amendment on that basis. We really feel that we’ve gotten the runaround and we’re trying to address that in a political arena.
Interestingly, on our three Canadian legislative issues, the IAFF has gotten support from both the Canadian volunteer firefighters association and the Canadian fire chiefs, so it’s a sign that these elements don’t just affect professional firefighters, they affect all firefighters, and, to a large degree, public safety.
Our concern on the pandemic sequencing is a public-safety issue because the modeling that was done shows that under a medium to severe pandemic, we are going to have 25 to 30 per cent of firefighters home sick and that’s a public-safety issue. What we’re looking for is Health Canada to list firefighters in the priority group with other emergency responders. We believe the mistake is that they listed firefighters by name in the second group – which is the general public – if they hadn’t named firefighters by name then we’d be saying here’s where we belong, with emergency medical responders, which is where they are in the U.S.
We’ve gotten a series of different answers from the ministry; we’ve been told now that the H1N1 was a one-time sequencing and they’ll review each [pandemic] as they come out, but there is a master document on the pandemic and we’re trying to make sure firefighters are properly identified in there as emergency medical responders and . . . they’ve finally struck a committee that will start hearing some evidence on some of that.