HE Council unanimously votes down fire department restructuring
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Huron East Council has unanimously voted down a motion that would have phased out all three of its fire districts, instead creating north and south divisions, and amalgamating the Brussels and Grey divisions of the department.
In a recorded vote, Mayor Bernie MacLellan, Deputy-Mayor Bob Fisher and all nine councillors voted against the motion, which had become a lightning rod for controversy over the weekend. The recommendation and accompanying report, penned by Chief Administrative Officer Brad McRoberts sparked an online petition to “Save the Grey Fire Department”, now signed by over 700 people, and an emergency meeting of the Grey firefighters ahead of council’s May 17 meeting.
In light of the opposition to the recommendation, MacLellan and council directed staff to split McRoberts’ original motion for consideration.
The original motion included nine recommendations. At the meeting, council passed a motion that included the first five points with little discussion. The motion directs all of the Huron East fire departments to: establish standardized equipment use; establish standardized training protocols; establish standard operating procedures; undergo workplace harassment training and to undertake a comprehensive review of the department’s fire vehicle apparatus and, lastly, develop non-biased justification reports for each apparatus.
Several councillors said they were surprised to learn that things like training and equipment were not standardized from department to department within the municipality.
However, the final four points comprised the motion that council would unanimously vote down. The recommendations included phasing out the Brussels and Grey departments and amalgamating them into one north fire district, phasing out the Seaforth department into a south district (both over the course of the next five years), undertake formal discussions with Huron County on the potential for a lease-based takeover of the Brussels fire hall for the Brussels paramedic services base and to establish a working group from the Grey and Brussels fire districts and the public works department to develop designs for a new public works north operations centre/north fire district fire hall.
Before council discussed the matter, MacLellan said that, in light of the changes being proposed in the first half of the motion and the information some councillors were hearing for the first time regarding the lack of standardization in the departments, he felt council should delay any potential organizational changes for several years. He said the departments should let the changes run their course and then council could re-evaluate the situation in three years’ time.
Several councillors were highly critical of the lack of public consultation on the matter after they felt there was a certain understanding that Huron East staff and council would solicit feedback from both residents and firefighters on the potential merging of the two departments.
Fisher spoke up first, saying he was of the opinion that public consultation should have been part of the process and that any further decision should be delayed until at least 2023 or 2024.
Councillor Justin Morrison said that while he was the member who made the motion to ask for more information on McRoberts’ original proposal, he was under the impression that the public would be consulted. He said that those he’s spoken with made it clear that public consultation “has not happened on the scale that it should have” and he felt that if the issue is to return in a few years’ time, it would have to be after the residents of Brussels and Grey have been thoroughly surveyed on the matter.
Councillor Dianne Diehl said she agreed with Morrison. “The public consultation is a huge miss in all of this.”
She said council passing the first five recommendations made sense, but that the municipality needs a better sense of “what everyone is thinking” on the issue and that it should maybe be revisited in the next three, four or five years.
Councillor Alvin McLellan agreed, saying he found it “very disheartening” to see the words “phase out” in the report. Wording like that, he said, really draws a line in the sand, so he wasn’t surprised to see the response from the community.
He also decried the lack of public consultation and said that, with ongoing development in communities like Ethel and Cranbrook, now is not the time to be reducing fire services in the community, but perhaps looking at enhancing them.
Mayor MacLellan then defended the report, calling it a “chicken and egg” situation. The way he interpreted it was that the report would start a conversation and public consultation process and that couldn’t begin without a recommendation on the table. He added that he never thought council would pass a recommendation that night.
McRoberts said that, given the apparent direction of council, he would recommend that any organizational changes for the municipality’s fire departments be delayed for a minimum of three years to allow for the changes proposed in the first motion to take effect.
In regards to public consultation, McRoberts said he intentionally avoided it, saying there was no point in upsetting residents about potential drastic changes if that wasn’t the direction council was planning on taking. In his report, he said he consulted with Fire Chief Marty Bedard, Brussels and Grey firefighters, Huron County, a real estate advisor and a building consultant.
Morrison said he disagreed with MacLellan and McRoberts. He said that, like McLellan said, the five-year timeline really draws a line in the sand with the public, adding that, if council decides to phase out the department in five years, that timeline is set as far as the public is concerned.
Council then voted on the remaining four recommendations, defeating the motion unanimously in a recorded vote.
MacLellan welcomed Grey Fire Chief Gary Boyer to address council as a delegation at the meeting. This came after some back-and-forth over the course of the weekend as to whether Boyer would be allowed to speak to council.
Before Boyer spoke, MacLellan raised a number of points. He relayed the history of the potential amalgamation of the Brussels and Grey Fire Departments, saying the concept dated back to a report prepared by McRoberts late last year that outlined a number of initiatives to be investigated in the new year.
He said that while some people may question some of the information presented by McRoberts in his report, it represents the hard data and “black and white information” that can be easily verified in regards to statistics and historical records. What was missing, however, is how such a decision would affect the public and he said that’s council’s responsiblity to ascertain and take into consideration before making a big decision.
He also stated that, in his time on Huron East Council, which is now over 20 years, he didn’t feel council had ever attempted to rush anything through and that this would have been no exception. If council was to give this consideration, however, the municipality had to start somewhere.
MacLellan also cited his weekend phone call with Boyer, saying he appreciated the “very good conversation” and that he appreciated hearing about how disbanding the Grey Fire Department would affect the firefighters, the residents and the community.
He also said he was happy to hear that the firefighters planned to stand by the community and protect it regardless of council’s decision. He said that level of commitment really showed the care and consideration the firefighters have for the community.
He said he felt the actions of the firefighters went a long way in helping to “diffuse a bad situation”.
Boyer then spoke via Zoom, seated alongside Brussels District Fire Chief Max McLellan.
Boyer cited the excellent response rates for both the Brussels and Grey departments, which would be put in jeopardy as a result of amalgamating the two departments. He also said the two departments have a good working relationship as things stand.
Any reduction in fire service to Grey and Brussels residents, he said, would be “very unacceptable” to both ratepayers and firefighters of the two regions.
He urged council to oppose McRoberts’ recommendation and instead listen to the more than 700 people who had made their voices heard by signing a petition to save the department.
He said he agreed with the standardization of equipment and training across the three departments, but felt the relatively low level of cost savings that would be realized by restructuring the departments didn’t outweigh the potential for loss of property and life due to increased response times.
“Under no circumstances do we support the merging of the two stations,” Boyer told council.
In McRoberts’ report, which he presented to council at its May 17 meeting, he outlined a number of concerns based on consultation with both the Brussels and Grey departments on April 20. These included: a lack of standardization of equipment; increased response times; illogical fire district service boundaries between Grey and Brussels; the challenge of flow of increased personnel due to the size of the Brussels fire hall; the fact that it had taken a long time for the two departments to begin to work together and that amalgamation could upset that relationship; increased liability; the challenge of Grey firefighters arriving at the scene in personal vehicles versus the fire hall; a lack of standardized training and standard operating procedures; the future of current officers; the treatment of female firefighters; the challenges of Brussels daytime fire responses; the impact on firefighters due to the increased number of calls; the fact that the area’s local elementary school is just outside of Ethel; increased levels of post-traumatic stress disorder due to the increased number of calls; the increased cost of homeowner’s insurance and the opportunity to reduce costs significantly without closing the Grey fire hall.
Another concern was the lack of synchronicity between Brussels and Grey when it comes to medical calls, though Boyer corrected that statement, saying the Grey department does respond to medical calls at the request of emergency medical services.
“As expected, there is significant resistance, particularly in the Grey fire hall, to the proposed closure of the Grey fire hall. There is, or will be, significant resistance to the closure of the Grey fire hall from the community, particularly from residents and businesses in the former Township of Grey,” McRoberts stated in his report.
McRoberts said that driving this feeling is a loss of sense of community. “Reducing levels of service is always perceived by the individual that they are getting less rather than getting what everyone else gets,” McRoberts said in his report. Other factors, according to McRoberts, include a perception of increased financial impact, a perception of loss of life, health or safety, historical animosity over amalgamation and the historical significance of the department.
Based on the consultation, McRoberts said he felt three themes emerged as prevalent: a lack of standardization, financial impacts versus savings and service levels and boundaries.
In regards to a lack of standardization, McRoberts said it would pose operational challenges at fire scenes and, if joint forces or equipment was required, compatibility would be a problem.
“Standardization of fire equipment, training and standard operating procedures should be developed and implemented across the municipality for all fire districts, regardless of any decision to close the Grey fire hall,” McRoberts said in his report.
McRoberts said that while there had been speculation that insurance rates would rise as a result of closing the Grey fire hall, after consulting with insurance providers, McRoberts said that wouldn’t be the case.
There are three grades for residential insurance and most, if not all, residents (with the exception of those living right in towns) would fall into the second grade of risk (communities with no hydrant protection and risks within 17 kilometres of the responding fire department on roads normally kept open all year round) regardless of whether the Grey hall was closed.
Regarding service levels and boundaries, McRoberts called them “inappropriate” and said the boundaries needed to be overhauled to reflect response times and not historical township boundaries. In short, he said, the closest department to the fire should be the one responding to it.
In his report, McRoberts said that the areas serviced by the Grey department enjoy a higher level of service in regards to response times than the municipality’s other two fire districts. If the Grey hall were to close, the response times for that community would be increased as a result and brought in line with the non-urban areas serviced by the Brussels and Seaforth departments.
McRoberts also said that, upon further review, he felt the economics of a consolidated north fire district in the same building as the public works department’s north patrol would be feasible, contrary to his earlier recommendation which felt it might be cost-prohibitive.
The net capital cost would be $250,000, he said, based on the sale of the Brussels fire hall, Grey fire hall, Grey public works building and capital equipment savings when compared to the cost of a new building ($3 million) and the land purchase. McRoberts estimated annual savings of just under $28,000.
NOTICE OF MOTION
Another piece of information several councillors said they were surprised to learn was the lack of communication between the three departments.
Councillor Zoellyn Onn said she would like to see the three fire chiefs meet on a regular basis and report back to council quarterly or biannually on the status of fire suppression in the municipality.
Fisher suggested that perhaps the officers of the three departments could be included in those meetings as well.
Onn put her suggestion forward as a notice of motion that will be considered at the June 7 meeting of council.