By Chad Ingram
Published Nov. 27 2018
The Ford government has tabled legislation proposing changes to firefighting services legislation that is welcome news to small communities across Ontario including the municipalities of Haliburton County.
Those changes part of the government’s Bill 57 introduced mid-November will eliminate some existing barriers to what is known as “double-hatting.” Double-hatters are full-time firefighters who serve with departments other than the one where they centrally employed such as the volunteer fire departments in the communities where they live.
The firefighters’ union has essentially outlawed the practice. Seeking to unionize part-time positions the union has taken disciplinary action against double-hatters in the past including issuing suspensions and fines. Its position has largely involved concerns around liability when double-hatters are injured.
The volunteer fire departments in Haliburton County have lost professionally trained members who’ve left their volunteer positions for fear of disciplinary action by the union.
“They were prevented mostly because of internal union rules but it affected mostly our rural communities” said Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock MPP and Ontario Labour Minister Laurie Scott during an announcement regarding the legislation at the Minden Hills fire hall on Nov. 24. “We have a lot of professional firefighters living in rural communities in Ontario and they couldn’t volunteer back into their communities.”
Scott noted the change has been a top request from organizations including the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and the Rural Ontario Municipal Association. Along with changes to rules around double-hatting the legislation also makes changes to interest arbitration when it comes to negotiations with firefighting unions giving more bargaining power to municipalities in the process.
“This is not a new issue for me I’ve been discussing this issue for 15 years” said Scott who’d advocated for legislative changes to allow double-hatting during her many years as an Opposition MPP. “So my entire time I’ve been elected I’ve been trying to get legislation brought in to protect the double-hatter firefighters.”
Scott was made an honorary fire chief at an Association of Ontario Fire Chiefs conference earlier this month.
“On behalf of me and the rest of the Haliburton County fire chiefs we’re ecstatic about the news” said Algonquin Highlands fire chief Mike Cavanagh. “This has been a long-standing issue within the service for as long as I can remember and definitely the tone in the room from across the province is very joyous and happy that we were able to put this issue to bed finally. And the fact that it happened so quickly is wonderful. We’re truly happy for the work Minister Scott’s done on this issue.”
Cavanagh said the changes would protect existing members of local departments and may allow for members who’ve left to return. “It provides protection for double-hatters that we already have that are maybe trying to stay low key and fly under the radar with their unions” he said “as well as hopefully we’ll be able to recruit some those firefighters we’ve lost in the past as well as maybe recruit some new professional firefighters that might be in living in the area as well.”
Volunteer fire departments can sometimes serve as a sort of training ground for those who go on to careers in professional firefighting and Cavanagh said such individuals would now be able to continue to volunteer in the communities where they started out.
“When we hire young people and they go on to further careers they will still be able to work in the municipality that they’ve started with which is wonderful” he said.
“We’re very proud to have you as an honorary fire chief” Cavanagh told Scott.
County politicians are also thrilled with the changes.
“Certainly in the region not just Minden Hills but rural Ontario this is a huge benefit” said Minden Hills Mayor Brent Devolin adding it was advantageous for communities with volunteer fire departments to be able to draw on the technical capabilities of professionally trained firefighters.
“They’re in our jurisdictions and involved with our fire services . . . that’s a huge benefit and they can do it without recourse” Devolin said.
Devolin added issues such as interest arbitration “manifest themselves in costs that aren’t truly appreciated” and applauded those changes as well.
“I know there are a lot of changes that people aren’t happy about but this is definitely a change to be happy and joyous about today” he said.
Like Scott Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt has also spoken for years about the need for reform when it comes to double-hatters.
“I’ve been a strong advocate for the double hatter issue and I’m pleased to see this legislation” Moffatt told the paper. “I understand the union’s perspective but I don’t agree with it. I don’t think it has any business telling firefighters what they can and can’t do on their personal time. Rural departments like ours are struggling with recruitment and retention and career firefighters are value-added members whose efforts should be welcomed not quashed. At one time the Stanhope Fire Department had five careered firefighters amongst its ranks and we were proud of that. In turn our volunteer departments have inspired numerous young folks to pursue firefighting as a career and we’re proud of that too.”
Scott said the legislation should be passed within a couple of weeks.