Winnipeg fire-paramedic Chief John Lane travelled to 36 conferences outside Manitoba since taking on the job in early 2014. On more than one occasion his airfare and accommodations were paid for by a firefighters' union so he could tout the city's fire-EMS model — a number his predecessor found surprising.
"Thirty-six conferences? Holy geez. Since 2014?" asked former chief Reid Douglas.
Douglas was chief of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service from December 2011 to September 2013. In that time, he said, at most he attended one conference a year and a maximum of two out of town meetings — if that.
"I went to the Canadian Fire Fighters once a year. But I used to be VP ... and I used to be president of the Fire Prevention Canada, but those were the only things I ever attended."
Douglas remembers being invited by Alex Forrest, the president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, to attend a number of out-of-town conferences that had been organized by outside unions, but says he declined.
"I just didn't think that it was proper for me to be — let's just be blunt — running around and padding my resume with all these different things when the money could be better served in the city itself," said Douglas.
He said chiefs are invited to attend union events across Canada and the U.S., but whether they should go is another issue.
"You're administration for the City of Winnipeg, should you even be attending the conference? I'd have to ask that question. What is the benefit to the city of Winnipeg?"
The current city administration doesn't see it that way.
"That's not out of line with what fire paramedic, with what you would see with police," said Michael Jack, Winnipeg's chief corporate services officer and Lane's boss. "Certain professions in parts of industries network with each other on a different basis than others."
Jack said as per the city's protocol, Lane would have had to bring forward each travel request and explain why it was necessary he attend.
"In the current budgetary climate we are in — we are very strict in terms of, and becoming increasingly strict in terms of, approving any travel unless we determine it to be of direct benefit to the city," said Jack.
"There are so many instances we can demonstrate for you where just knowing what is happening in the industry, just knowing what is happening in terms of new technologies, new processes and I realize you can suggest there's all sorts of other ways one can learn about such thing but there's often no substitute for actual networking for people at the chiefs level."
City spent $50K on Lane's travel in 4 years
In 2017, Lane travelled to Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, Orlando, Washington, Charlotte, N.C., Rome, Ga. and a number of other cities to attend 12 conferences, according to a list provided to CBC by the city.
We added up the numbers and determined taxpayers have spent a little over $52,000 to send Lane to out-of-town conferences since he became chief in early 2014. The total amount of time he was away to attend those events adds up to 135 days.
In contrast, the Winnipeg Police Service said its chief Danny Smyth didn't go to any out-of-town conferences last year.
"Chief gets invited to a great many things and we don't approve them all," said Jack. "We look at each one on a case by case basis and determine whether or not it is reasonable to have the chief attend."
In the five years Jim Brennan served as Winnipeg fire-paramedic chief, he said he could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he travelled to a conference outside of the province.
"I tried actually to avoid it to some degree of effort," said Brennan, who was chief from 2007 to 2011. "I actually cut the travel budget the city had when I took over because to me the work was to be done at home."
Brennan said he had been asked on several occasions to present on the Winnipeg fire-EMS model, but only remembers going to two.
"I went to one in Houston which was a fire-EMS conference and spoke along with the medical director who's the same person who's there today. I also went to Sydney, Nova Scotia, I think, and spoke about it," said Brennan.
Lane touts fire-EMS model
Lane has presented on the Winnipeg fire-EMS model on nine occasions since 2014. On more than one of those trips Lane's travel and accommodations were paid for by a number of different groups including the International Association of Fire Fighters, the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association, the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association, and the Ontario Good Roads Association.
"Certain expenses being covered by someone who was asking the chief to come and speak to something, that can be reasonable," said Jack.
In an email to CBC, a city spokesperson said the Winnipeg Fire-Paramedic Service is proud of the integrated service model and that the chief is encouraged to promote it.
"Chief Lane is encouraged to take every opportunity to promote our successes. When he receives invitations to speak at conferences, he would attend regardless of whether his expenses were paid or not. Therefore, any expenses covered by sponsoring agencies are a savings for the City. Chief Lane has received no other compensation as that would contravene guidelines," the statement said.
But Douglas is left with questions.
"What is the benefit to the city of Winnipeg? I mean the chief works for the taxpayers of the City of Winnipeg. If we're on the leading edge of it and we're going out and telling people about it that's great for the greater population, but what is the benefit for the citizens of Winnipeg that are paying his salary to run this organization?" said Douglas.
Here is a list of the days Lane was out of town on a conference or event since becoming chief in April 2014, according to the city's records:
- 2014 — He attended 7 conferences and was gone 24 days.
- 2015 — He attended 8 conferences and was gone for 36 days.
- 2016 — He attended 9 conferences and was gone for 32 days.
- 2017 — He attended 12 conferences and was gone for 43 days.
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