Miramichi firefighters ring alarm over firefighter shortage

After a fire destroyed a Miramichi homeowner's large shed early Wednesday, the firefighters union again complained of a shortage of firefighters in the city.

Couple awakened by passerby who spotted backyard woodworking shop ablaze

Iris Duffy says this is what it looked like outside her house when she woke up this morning. (Submitted by Iris Duffy)

After a fire destroyed a Miramichi homeowner's large shed early Wednesday, the firefighters union again complained of a shortage of firefighters in the city.

"Thankfully, it was just a garage," said Craig Vienneau, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 5087.

Gervase Duffy said he and his wife were asleep in bed at about 7:30 a.m. when someone driving by their home at 318 Williston Dr. spotted the fire and came to their door.

I lost everything that I had in there.- Gervase  Duffy, Miramichi homeowner

"I told my wife, I said, 'Go answer it quick because they're knocking too long and too hard. It's got to be something wrong.'"

Duffy said he looked out and saw flames coming from the windows of the shed in his backyard that he used as a woodworking shop.

About 10 firefighters showed up at the Nordin-area property within about 10 minutes, said Duffy, but they were unable to save the building.

"No, they tried everything," he said. "But, like they said, it was so dry and everything. She's right to the ground. I lost everything that I had in there."

Duffy had tools inside, but he had just emptied the shed of 10 benches he made for people for Christmas.

House siding scorched

"I have a heart condition and I've been retired since '95. I'm limited in what I can do. So, I just fart around a bit."

The building was close to the Duffy home, but only a couple of pieces of siding were scorched. Duffy said if the wind had been blowing toward his home, the outcome might have been different. 

There is no word on the cause of the fire. Iris Duffy said firefighters ruled out electrical. And, she said, there was no wood stove in the building or gas heater. 

The Duffys were more than satisfied with the service from the fire department, but Vienneau was not.

Every structure fire I go to my stomach turns because I don't know if somebody's coming behind me.- Craig Vienneau , union president

Fifteen firefighters should be at a structure fire within 10 minutes of a call, but the Miramichi department sometimes scrambles to find that many.

"There's lots of jobs to be doing, like, you need pump operators, you need incident command, you need guys to go into the fire, you need guys outside the fire, ready to go in after the first two are in," Vienneau said. "There's so many things to do and so few people to do it."

The union representing Miramichi firefighters says there are still too few firefighters responding to many calls. (Miramichi IAFF 5087/Twitter)
He said it was difficult to get just 10 firefighters on the scene Wednesday morning, adding one of them was a student, and another wasn't qualified to use a breathing apparatus.

Vienneau said it happens quite often that there are too few firefighters who respond to a call.

"Every structure fire I go to my stomach turns because I don't know if somebody's coming behind me," he said.

"We need to do some hiring. We just don't have enough people."

The city has 20 staff firefighters, supplemented by 35 volunteers. At any given time there are two staff firefighters at each of the city's two stations.

The number of volunteers who respond can range from 30 to just a handful, said Vienneau.

The firefighters union has complained multiple times about frequent shortages in the past few years. 

Adam Lordon, the mayor of Miramichi, says a number of changes are being made at the fire department that should alleviate staffing problems. (Bridget Yard/CBC News)

Mayor Adam Lordon said things should improve soon. The city is implementing all of the recommendations made last spring by a consultant hired to look into the staffing issue, he said.

"We're committed to ensuring that the community has adequate fire service and we're midstream on a number of changes that will make the situation better," said Lordon.

A deputy chief position has been created and someone was hired this fall, he said. That person will start Feb. 1.

Money for 2 new officers

The 2018 city budget also includes funding for two new fire safety prevention officers. Lordon said those jobs will be posted early in the new year.

"That will mean that there will be 50 per cent more firefighters on shift every day," said the mayor.

Lordon isn't sure any more full-time firefighters will need to be hired after that. But he said the city began collecting data in the fall on response times and staffing and will analyze the numbers after six to 12 months to make sure standards are being met.

The firefighters' labour contract expired a year ago and talks are under way to reach a new one.