Contract disputes are breaking out between firefighters and municipalities across Alberta, and it could mean slower response times during emergencies.

Roughly half of all the firefighter unions are now without a contract, including Calgary, Edmonton and Canmore.

"Ideally we would have liked to have been able to hash out a contract," said International Association of Firefighters Local 4794 president Jeff Cragg, who represents firefighters in Rocky View County.

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Jeff Cragg, who represents firefighters in Rocky View County, says his union just wants a fair deal. (CBC)

Cragg won't say how much of a salary increase his union is asking for, but says firefighters in Rocky View County are paid substantially lower than their counterparts elsewhere in Alberta — a percentage difference he says is in the double digits.

Battling fires is increasingly becoming a costly problem. In Medicine Hat, the city and union are heading to arbitration.

Ald. Jeremy Thompson argues firefighters are asking for too much money.

"Well it was quite a bit higher than what we came in at, especially when this would make our fire department higher paid than our police department and leapfrog Calgary and Edmonton," he said. 

While collective bargaining contracts vary across the province, the wage for a first-class firefighter with at least three years of experience was set at $42.15 per hour — or $92,303 a year — in a recent deal signed in Leduc.

Medicine Hat considers cuts to services

Thompson says the city offered a two or three per cent wage increase, but the union wanted five per cent.

The city is now considering cutting service to residents.

Current contract disputes

In arbitration: Town of Cochrane, City of Medicine Hat, Rocky View County  

In mediation: City of Calgary, City of Edmonton, Town of Canmore  

In negotiations: Town of Okotoks, City of St. Albert, City of Spruce Grove

"I have some council members in Medicine Hat who say if the arbitrator rules in favour of the union, then we need to cut our fire service, find cutbacks in our service," said Thompson.

"Instead of going to a fourth station, we are going to rearrange our three stations to cover our response time and there is talk about changing our response time too," he added.

Some firefighters in Alberta argue they want parity, so they make the same salary no matter where they work.

But Cragg says unions, like his, just want a fair deal.

"There seems to be a movement through the province of not negotiating right now with us," he said, adding that is why his group is heading to arbitration.

Bob Barnetson, a labour relations professor at Athabasca University, says firefighters could have the upper hand during negotiations.  

"Some occupational groups are held in a really high regard by the public," he told CBC News.   

"You think about nurses, cops, teachers and firefighters — and politicians tend to be reluctant to adopt a very hard line in bargaining with those groups because they fear electoral consequences. So in that way, firefighters may have an advantage at the bargaining table."

What is mediation?

At any time during collective bargaining, either party may ask for the assistance of a mediator. The appointment of a mediator is considered a regular part of the collective bargaining process.

Normally, there are four possible outcomes of mediation:

  1. The mediator can help the parties reach a ratified collective agreement.
  2. The mediator can issue a recommendation for settlement, which is accepted by the parties and forms the basis of a collective agreement.
  3. Both or one party rejects the mediator’s recommendations.
  4. The mediator is not able to resolve differences between the parties.

What is arbitration?

Compulsory arbitration applies to those employers and employees without the right to strike or lockout (e.g. firefighters and the health-care sector).

A Compulsory Arbitration Board must make its award within 20 days after it was established, or a longer time determined by a minister or agreed to by the parties. The award is binding on the parties and included in the terms of the new collective agreement.

*Government of Alberta, Human Services.