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Off-duty firefighters, board discuss issues

After 30 volunteer firefighters from the Bonnyville and La Corey fire halls ceased to respond Dec.
La Corey fire chief Ulla Hansen addresses the BRFA board at the meeting Dec. 9.
La Corey fire chief Ulla Hansen addresses the BRFA board at the meeting Dec. 9.

After 30 volunteer firefighters from the Bonnyville and La Corey fire halls ceased to respond Dec. 2 due to safety concerns and the termination of elected deputy chief James Sharun, the Bonnyville Regional Fire Authority (BRFA) board met with firefighters Dec. 9 and Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) has started an inspection of the fire halls.

The BRFA has asked all 16 La Corey firefighters to return to the hall after the entire department walked out.

The hall's fire chief Ulla Hansen said she had four or five firefighters semi-committed to returning, including herself, while the others are not sure. She said they will be discussing it in a meeting Tuesday night.

The BRFA advised the 14 Bonnyville firefighters who walked out that they would have to re-apply for their positions.

Lawrence Ference, one of the fire hall's lieutenants who walked out and spoke on behalf of the firefighters with the BRFA board Dec. 9, called it a "slap in the face" that they would have to re-apply.

He said the strong majority of the firefighters who walked out would not go back through that process, even though they want to return to active duty. He said they want their positions reinstated and their elected deputy chief James Sharun reinstated, who was terminated without cause.

He questioned why they should be disciplined for trying to bring safety concerns to the attention of the BRFA.

"They can't just come back. They have to go through an application process," said BRFA board member Reeve Ed Rondeau. "They still have to go through the interview process and if they're there for the right reason there's absolutely no reason why they wouldn't get in."

Ference said the Bonnyville firefighters who walked out will still respond to a serious emergency and agreed to since the walkout.

He said until they receive a letter of termination, they consider themselves part of the department.

In the meeting between Ference and Bonnyville fire hall chief Steve Wojcik, who represented the firefighters who ceased to respond, and the BFRA, the board addressed concerns outlined in a letter sent by firefighters last week.

One of the concerns was about the age of firefighters' protective bunker gear.

There is a difference of opinion on replacement guidelines between OH&S guidelines that state 5 and 10 years, and National Fire Protection Association guidelines that state 10 and 13 years, said McEvoy. He said the BRFA would work with OH&S to get a definitive answer to adhere to.

He said the BRFA tries to maintain a 10-year replacement cycle, but could not answer how many sets were over 10 years old and admitted to not having a complete inventory. He said there are sets over 10 years old still in use. He said he believed any over 13 years to have been pulled out.

Ference said there are some sets approaching 20 years in age.

Hansen said the La Corey fire hall has only one set that is less than 10 yrs old and has some that are 35 years old.

McEvoy said he purchased and is waiting to receive 19 sets of protective clothing from the Calgary fire department that are two years old at $150 each, and in January would have a new budget to purchase more gear. He said new protective clothing sets cost $2,200 each.

Ference asked McEvoy why the Calgary department would get rid of them, to which he replied would be a question to ask Calgary, and what the most important piece of equipment for firefighters is.

"All I'm trying to establish for the public to know is that, damn it, the most important piece of equipment is our fire protection equipment and we shouldn't be nickel and diming on that," said Ference.

Rondeau said they were not nickel and diming and if the equipment is of quality and only 2 years old, there could be money left over to buy new equipment so they could purchase lots of equipment.

"We need an inventory, we're going to get one and we're not going to live with 35-year-old equipment. So if there is 35-year-old equipment out there we're going to replace it," he said.

Board member and Town of Bonnyville Coun. Rene Van Brabant asked why firefighters hadn't come forward earlier before walking out since the issues discussed had been going on for two and a half years, and how the board could have known if no one came forward.

"This should never have happened."

Firefighters said they had been trying to push the issues forward, deal with them internally, and work within their means.

"We had ongoing issues where we had been made out to be the idiots because we were bringing small issues to council that weren't being addressed," said Hansen.

She told the board to consider the Regional Fire Authority and McEvoy's role as they were hired to simplify volunteers' work.

"Somewhere along the line you guys really let it get out of hand."

She said she requested a meeting last February that still hasn't taken place.

"I am really disappointed in my elected officials, who appointed me a fire chief in the MD of Bonnyville in January of 1996, that you have not shown more support when we walked off in support of the Bonnyville firemen. We had issues for years that were not being addressed and clearly something has to be done to reaffirm the position that Brian (McEvoy) has within this fire authority," she said to a room full of applause.

Board member Mayor Ernie Isley said he reiterated Van Brabant's disappointment. "It's a little shocking when you get a phone call saying 'If you can't get the issues resolved by tomorrow night, we're gone'... I've rubbed shoulders with many of you many times...nobody's been saying, 'We're unsafe, we're unsafe, we've got to improve our safety,' up until three weeks ago or whenever it came to light," he said, aside from one instance three years ago with a former firefighter, that he said was a personnel issue. He said he spoke with the fire chief about taking it to the board, but the chief decided to take care of it.

"We understand that we've messed up, we've made faults," said Rondeau. "We need to do some fixing and we fully plan to fix."

Rondeau said the real underlying issue seemed to be that the firefighters wanted the BRFA administration terminated.

After the meeting, Rondeau said the BRFA board would not terminate its administration.

During the meeting, he said short of safety things, what is needed most is a standard operating procedure, an issue raised by firefighters earlier.

"Everybody needs to know what they're supposed to be doing or how they're supposed to be doing certain things and it needs to be clear."

Another issue raised was about servicing the breathing air compressor.

McEvoy acknowledged the service was behind and the air had not been tested as required every six months. He said once it was brought to his attention, firefighter Tim Graham arranged to have it serviced by Astec Safety the next time the service person was in town. It was serviced Oct. 21 and on Oct. 26 the department received results saying the air was within standard.

Graham said he raised the issue numerous times and that the air compressor had not been serviced in about two and a half years.

McEvoy said it wasn't quite that long, and that the fire department has been put in Astec's regular maintenance and air testing schedule and diarized the schedule in its own records.

"Any place that we are falling short will be cleaned up," said Isley in regards to the OH&S inspection.

The results from the inspection are not yet available.

During the meeting, an idea for the board and fire chiefs to meet biannually was discussed. Hansen said in the past they would meet every three months.

After the meeting, Rondeau said the board is committed to these meetings so once the big concerns are dealt with, it can take care of little issues "so they don't fester and become a big problem."

After the meeting, Ference said it brought disclosure and accountability to the situation. He said they are better off as the board is more aware.

Rondeau said the board will meet Dec. 16 to discuss the finances required to ensure the equipment is up to standard.