Tempers flare over request for more Napanee firefighters

Napanee’s historic Town Hall in January 2024. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell.

Things got heated at the budget review meeting of the Council of the Town of Greater Napanee on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, as tempers flared over a request for more firefighters.

The special meeting of Council to discuss the 2024 budget began at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, with each Town department presenting its past year’s budget performance, submitting requests for the new year, and suggesting ways the department might slim down its spending.

After technical issues resulted in the first half of the day’s presentations not being publicly broadcast, the marathon Council session was “eight or nine hours in,” according to Mayor Terry Richardson, when Fire Chief Bill Hammond began his Emergency Services Department presentation. It should be noted that the request for more firefighters for the Town has been an ongoing topic of interest.

“I am obligated, in our bylaw, to inform you when we have a crisis,” Hammond began. “I have come to this Council for the last two years asking for four firefighters, and I’m asking you again.”

He was about to go on when Mayor Terry Richardson stopped him and asked him to follow the format of the previous presentations: going slide by slide before “asking for things… I’d ask that you stick to page 80 at this point.”

“I’m on page 80, Mayor,” the chief stated. Then he asked, “Are there any questions on slide 80?” 

In answer to a question from Councillor Bob Norrie about his request, Hammond said, “Right now we have eight full-time firefighters. Six of them are dedicated to [fire] suppression. I have a training officer and an FPO [Fire Prevention Officer]. If I split them up into four platoons of two on 12-hour shifts, they could provide 24-hour response. However, [there are] legislated requirements for a fire prevention officer and a training officer… Primarily their jobs are Monday to Friday for inspections.” 

The chief explained that fire services follow the three lines of defence: public education, inspection upon complainer request, and response.

Hammond said he would be remiss “if I didn’t mention on this slide [that] we are missing the 65 paid on-call staff who are also represented in all of my figures… I have 45 of those positions filled. I’m down 20, and we’re running a recruit program right now with eight staff.”

Asked for further clarification, the chief said that, if four more full-time firefighters were hired, the Town would be able to have two full-time firefighters on duty at all times. “It would also allow a truck to be out of the station within 90 seconds” each time a call came in, he said.

Councillor Dave Pinnell noted, “There’s been some talk about holding off on hiring new staff for fire [and waiting] for a Fire Master Plan and your risk assessment.” He also said he remembered a failed attempt by a previous Council to produce a Fire Master Plan that had been “shelved,” but could not recall exactly when.

Expressing reluctance to keep waiting, Pinnell suggested the Town add a placeholder to the budget for at least two firefighters to be hired because growth of the department was inevitably going to be needed given some of the upcoming changes in the Town.

“We have over 1,600 homes draft approved. We have a new long-[term] care facility being built at the hospital with 128 beds. We have A new long-[term] care facility being built at Village Green with 128 beds… Goodyear is adding a $600 million expansion and over 200 jobs. Council has approved four energy projects, one of them being a 450 megawatt gas turbine. Maybe it’s not time right now to hire four, but we should be able to do something,” he said.

Pinnell also addressed the current tiered health response, shared with the County of Lennox and Addington, which sees firefighters attending medical calls if paramedics are unavailable. He said, “If I’m on the floor and somebody’s pushing on my chest, I would not care what colour their uniform is… That might come back and haunt us. As they say, every second counts.”

He then asked Hammond, “How would that look with your platoons? If we couldn’t give you four, [but two]?”

The chief answered, “I have six [full-time fire] suppression staff right now… I’ll take two. [But] I’m not going to stop asking for more staff. Two would help me get four platoons of two [firefighters] to start to provide a service to this community 24 hours a day… I’m trying to move the department forward for a safer community and the better response model that our community deserves.” 

Councillor Bill Martin said he relied on the chief and trusted his opinion on the safety of the community, saying, “When he comes to us and asks us for four more firefighters, I take notice of that, and I think we need to have an expanded conversation about that.” 

After a lengthy digression in which Councillor Mike Schenk questioned what happened to the plan ordered by a previous council, suggesting he might like to compare it with the current Chief’s recommendations, he suggested perhaps paid on-call firefighters could do the night shift.

“All I’m saying is there are a lot of questions out there that maybe I’m not privy to, but… until we have all those facts, it would be improper or unethical, as far as I’m concerned, to say yes,” Schenk said.

Hammond asked the mayor, “May I respond?”

“I don’t know if there’s a question there, but you can respond,” said Richardson.

“Your suggestion of having paid-on-calls staff our stations after hours would be ‘contracting out.’ Unfortunately, I’m obligated to follow the collective agreement,” Hammond explained to the councillor.

“Secondly, [getting paid on-calls] out at night consistently… is a problem… This is not a homegrown problem; it’s a national crisis.” 

To solidify this point, Hammond pointed to the recent destruction of the York Street arena by fire, which led to arson charges.

“I had 13 of my staff there. For a building that size, I required 24,” he explained.

“I had six full-time staff there. They came back after their shift to assist. That left me with eight paid on-call [staff] for a [once in a] career fire.” 

Hammond told Schenk that, had other municipalities not sent help, there would have been much worse results.

“Some of them are in the same situation,” the fire chief said, referring to other municipalities.

“If I start calling them in when I haven’t used all my resources, the Mutual Aid Plan of Ontario will then start looking at Napanee and [accusing us of] using this to augment staffing issues. And that’s another fear I have.”

Councillor Schenk then responded, “It’s not like I fell off the cabbage truck yesterday when it came to the fire department.”

Schenk has mentioned at previous meetings that he has been a volunteer firefighter, including on October 24, 2023, when he said he had “been there, seen that” in his thank-you to Hammond after the colossal arena fire.

Deputy Mayor Brian Calver then spoke, saying, “ There’s not one of us here that doesn’t want to look after our community.” But, he stated, Council needed to look into more “facts and figures.”

“I know there’s things in the works on the County side of things. We’ve got our budget meeting tomorrow. We need to see all the facts and figures before we start doing more hires,” said Calver.

Pinnell observed, “I’m not getting a warm fuzzy feeling from Council right now” and reiterated his desire to budget for at least two firefighters.

Martin asked when the Community Risk Assessment (CRA) and the Fire Master Plan (FMP) would be finished. Hammond answered that the fire administration would have the  FMP done by the beginning of the second quarter of 2024, and the CRA is not legislated to be completed until July.

Calver commented that doing their own FMP might be a “conflict of interest.”

Hammond clarified that the last FMP had been “shelved” by the previous fire chief and his administration circa 2022.

“I’m going to be very blunt here,” Mayor Richardson weighed in. “There is a reason why we do Fire Master Plans; there’s a reason why we do Community Risk Assessments. Council is tasked with making informed and defendable decisions… There could be a plethora of reasons why those documents haven’t been presented to us. However, those documents provide us with an insight as to what this community needs, not only with staffing, but the level of service which our community expects.”

He said he believed it was “completely premature to suggest that we hire four firefighters or even put a placeholder in place for four firefighters, until those documents have been completed.” 

The mayor noted that the medical tiered response agreement is not effective.

“Our fire department is responding to calls that we shouldn’t be responding to, and it’s because of the tiered response agreement,” said Richardson, noting that the County is investigating the situation.

“I quite honestly cannot make those decisions… until those documents have been completed. I’m just one vote. I’m just a person who’s been elected to look after the well-being of the community. However, we’ve been here for the better part of eight or nine hours, and we’ve heard requests, everything from our roads to our equipment… We are going to have to make some tough decisions,”  he continued.

“But we need to make informed, defendable decisions concerning what we’re going to do with the taxpayers’ money. And I’ll be quite honest with you: at this point, at least in my heart, I can’t do that right now. So, until I see some documents, until I see some processes, some policies to guide us… I don’t think we’re in a position to be able to make those decisions. That’s my thoughts on it.”

Hammond responded firmly, “You selected me as your chief fire official. I am the fire professional in the room. Certified. Qualified. I’m telling you, we have a staffing issue. If I don’t have vulnerable positions filled on a fire ground and somebody dies, Mayor — and I am sounding the alarm at this point. I get it; it’s dramatic. I’m losing sleep over this for two years.” 

The Mayor countered, “Would this be the opportunity that we involve the Fire Marshal’s Office? As a fire professional… to deal with an emergency?”

“No, because I can make—” Hammond began, but he stopped as the Mayor shook his head.

“Don’t shake your head like that, Mayor,” Hammond responded. “That’s rude. You want to bring the Fire Marshal’s office in — to do what? An audit of the fire department?”

The Mayor cut him off, raising his voice: “Chief Hammond, this is my meeting… I will control this meeting the way I want to control this meeting, and it appears as though you’ve come here looking for a fight because you’ve not followed the process. You’ve not followed the agenda the way it is. You come in here barking orders that you need four firefighters. This is my meeting. I will control this meeting the way I will control this meeting. And you will be a presenting member of the organization of the Corporation of the Town of Greater Napanee. Just so we get this straight.” 

“Through you, Your Worship,” said Hammond, using the correct procedural means of beginning to speak during a meeting of council. He followed that up with a single word.

“Wow,” the fire chief uttered.

“You’re more than willing to comment,” prompted the Mayor. 

“I have no comment,” stated the Chief. 

Council posed no more questions or concerns about the current state of affairs of the department.

The 2024 budget will next be discussed at a Special Meeting of Council on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024.

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