The mayor of Deep River, Ont. says her municipality of 4,000 people simply couldn't afford to operate a fire department with nine full-time firefighters.

By July, the crew of nine was reduced after two firefighters retired. Contract workers were added to help, but when their agreements weren't renewed and two others took extended sick leave, the station crew dwindled to four.

Fewer staff means that the fire hall is unmanned on evenings and weekends.

Mayor Joan Lougheed told CBC Radio's All in a Day an arbitration decision from 2014 actually allows council to reduce the fire station staff to eight through attrition, and that volunteer firefighters would be enlisted to make up the difference.

But the town currently doesn't have any volunteers.

"We did not arbitrarily reduce the number of firefighters," Lougheed said. "The predicament we're in is that the costs are an incredible burden."

joan lougheed deep river mayor

Mayor Joan Lougheed said it will take time to rebuild the trust between the fire department and town council. (Town of Deep River)

Council proposed reducing staff all the way down to two firefighters as a way to cut costs, but the volunteer firefighters they aim to supplement with aren't cheap either. 

The town pays about $830 per household for fire services, an amount the mayor said is 10 times what comparable municipalities pay. 

Fire chief resigns amid controversy

Residents have criticized the town council and fire services for how they've gone about redesigning the emergency service.

The staff reduction also puts into question how the department would respond to a structure fire. At least 16 firefighters must be present to combat such a fire, and in the past the department has relied on mutual aid agreements with nearby municipalities to make up the shortfall.

While core fire staff is dwindling, the town is also looking to hire more fire captains, according to Lougheed. They currently have none and a captain is required to be on duty during all emergency response calls.

They are also in the market for a new chief, as Rob Shaw resigned Wednesday.

Lougheed insisted Shaw left after his six-month contract — plus its three-month extension — expired, and not as a result of the staffing issues. 

deep river emergency services fire

The Deep River, Ont., department would need significant backup from nearby municipalities to have the 16 firefighters required to battle a structure fire. (Google Maps)

'I find their actions reprehensible'

In an emailed statement sent Friday morning, Shaw lambasted the Deep River Firefighters' Association, writing that "they have a very clear agenda to get what they want and resist any efforts to have them do anything they don't want to do.

"We are now in a situation where the remaining full-time firefighters are refusing to respond to emergency calls after hours. They have cited various reasons for this ranging from not being paid to carry pagers or be on call.

"I am fairly certain that when they were hired onto a department with only two firefighters on duty they knew the expectation was that they respond after hours which is why they must live within five miles of the fire hall."

Shaw also dismissed some firefighers' concern about liability or fire safety in light of the staffing issues.

"As for liability I am sure they are aware that the Fire Prevention and Protection Act makes it clear the fire chief is liable for fire safety, not the association or its members," Shaw wrote in the email.

"Whatever their grievances, there is absolutely no excuse for any emergency first responders on the public payroll to not to respond when able. I find their actions reprehensible," Shaw wrote.

As for resigning, Shaw wrote he had prior commitments to fulfill and was hired on a temporary bases from the start.

'There is tension'

Shaw has been outspoken about the lack of training among the firefighters, including that two members tapped for captaincy training had eventually refused to be trained for the positions.

Deep River has gone through at least nine fire chiefs since 2010, according to Shawn Madore, who recently retired from the service.

Council and the fire department have been at odds for decades, according to both Shaw and Lougheed. 

"There is tension and I'm not sure it can be resolved until we get a solid system in place," Lougheed said.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this article stated that the Ontario Ombudsman was issuing a report on Deep River's fire service. In fact, the report is concerning the police force.
    Sep 23, 2017 4:52 PM ET
With files from CBC Radio's All in a Day