Public meeting garners community’s support for firefighters
By Darren Lum
The message was clear following the public meeting facilitated by the Highlands East firefighters on Saturday night: Help us help you.
Led by main speaker and firefighter Tom Burroughs, the evening meeting on Dec. 7 at the Highland Grove Community Centre addressed the specific issues for firefighters related to findings released in two reports: the Highlands East Building Condition Assessment Report and the Highlands East Organization Assessment, which included the cost of equipment and maintenance and repairs to stations. The organization assessment recommended the reduction of stations from five to four or three.
Burroughs said he believed the costs in the reports were over inflated and condition characterizations were inaccurate, particularly for stations two, four and station six. He questioned the methodology of how the Highlands East Organization Assessment reached its conclusions, which were based on observation and in part on interviews with council and staff members. Not one firefighter was consulted, he added.
He and other firefighters did not dispute that repairs and maintenance are required. They questioned the extent and what items were listed in the report. For one case, the approximate $50,000 cost related to the installation of a floor drain is not accurate, he said, since there is one in place, but was hidden from view, obstructed by a fire truck. There was also an assessment of the building with station two, which wrongly identified areas of concern and mischaracterized other areas in terms of condition.
If such an apparent mistake was made what other inaccuracies are there, Burroughs said.
The firefighters had two questions: if there is a record of repairs related to maintenance costs, and if the township’s building department performs regular review of facilities to establish a list of costs to maintain buildings?
“Do we have to get somebody in every 10 years for $55,000 just to review our buildings, or can that be done in-house?” he said.
He added a building doesn’t need replacing overnight. Where was the oversight when it comes to the building department, who have been around these buildings?
In referencing the Walter Fedy building condition report, which assessed 34 of the municipality’s facilities, Burroughs outlined a few major points of concern such as the inflated cost recommended and what particular costs are associated with health and safety requirements and what is a luxury item. He cited the unnecessary $12,000 cost for a kitchen replacement at station six, which must be done by 2020. The report recommended more than $2 million in repairs for all buildings by 2020 and $567,500 for just station two. These kinds of figures are misleading for the public and decision-makers, he said.
That said, council has been public about not deciding anything, he added.
“They'll probably keep saying that as long as anyone mentions it, which is good. Hopefully they do, but what we don't want to see is them bring that number out to everybody and everybody see a great big number and say, ‘Oh, that’s a lot of money. You know, what can we do?’ and it does get passed. We want to make sure that the public see these figures and see that a lot of it is false,” he said.
He and all the firefighters in attendance recognize repairs are needed at the stations. However, with a large area to cover, the firefighters do not want to see any closures as a result of these reports. They want to maintain what they have. Closures, which seems to be a likelihood if people only look at the large figures, is a safety concern to the public and firefighters, they say.
Burroughs said the public needs to be informed of any decisions related to service and that the firefighters want greater input when it comes to decisions that will affect their ability to perform their jobs.
“They’ve not reviewed the costs or effectiveness of what we currently have. They’ve not listed any deficiencies or given us any financial information that would indicate a problem with the current system. Instead of looking at ways of improving what we have they have moved ahead at options at reduce the coverage and effectiveness of our fire services,” Burroughs said.
Station two district fire chief Doug Bowen said whenever repairs for station two have been requested over the past several years, it’s been put off. This has gone for years with different councils passing it on to the next one.
“If the building needs repair, you should be looking at it every year,” he said. “And then you want repairs done? ‘Well, OK, OK.’ It never happened. So now this report says, ‘Oh, your buildings in really bad shape.’ Well, whose fault is that?”
Station six firefighter Adam Szelei said response time is key and a closure could increase that.
Recalling a house fire call: “We were so fast to get there because of station six we were able to save their home. They lost their garage and Randy’s golf clubs, but other than that ... had that been another five, 10 minutes, they would have lost their home,” he said.
He added there were other homes that could have been lost too if not for the quick response.
Firefighter Stephane Stern said it’s important to focus on the main function of the fire service, which is to save lives.
“Our primary goal is life safety in the community. That’s why we signed on for this. I'm pretty sure that the DC [district chief] doesn't care if his kitchen is aesthetically pleasing or not. He cares whether he can get a truck out on the road to service a community. The same with us. I don’t care if the walls are painted green, blue, red, or whatever. I don’t stay at that hall full time. I care about when I open that door can I get apparatus out to help the public,” he said.
He disputed the recommendation, saying this doesn’t require a $1.5 million new station.
When asked about ward two Councillor Suzanne Partridge, Burroughs said she was contacted, but declined to attend Saturday’s meeting, citing previous plans.
He appreciated those who attended and hopes word spreads.
Firefighting requires time for training. Enlisting the help of the public to form an advocacy group, or “watchdog” group would allow the firefighters do their job.
“A lot of nights we get caught up in this kind of stuff. If we had a group of people that would go to the
Fire Committee meeting, even if they could go to council meetings, and keep an eye on what is being said in regards to the fire halls. Make sure that nothing does get passed or pushed through without everybody’s input,” he said.