The Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) wants to petition the provincial government to allow full-time firefighters in one community to be volunteers in another at the same time.

The practise of being employed by two fire departments at once is known as "double-hatting." It includes full-time firefighters who work as volunteer firefighters on their spare time.

It's something frowned upon by the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Carmen Santoro, the president of the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association, said the so-called volunteer jobs aren't actually a service double-hatters provide for free, it's actually paid part-time work.

"Basically it violates our constitution, the full-time firefighter swore to abide by that constitution, and it was democratically created and agreed to by all the members," said Santoro.

Still, AMO is encouraging all its member municipalities to pass a draft resolution calling for Ontario amend the Fire Protection and Prevention Act to allow the practice of double-hatting.

Essex County Council, which borders Windsor in southern Ontario, passed a motion Wednesday night that asks the province to do just that.

The President of AMO is Gary McNamara, who is also the mayor of the Town of Tecumseh, located about 17 kilometres east of Windsor. He said firefighters who practice double-hatting could be kicked out of their respective union and thereby put out of a job for violating union bylaws.

"Since many municipalities can only employ card-carrying union members based on collective agreement restrictions, the threat of being put on trial and the loss of union membership is ultimately a threat of job termination," McNamara states on the AMO site. "Over the years, union charges have been brought against individuals who are double hatters and as a result, generally stop their involvement as a volunteer."

Experience of professional firefighters 'irreplaceable'

McNamara said the experience a full-time firefighter brings to a volunteer force is irreplaceable.

"It's sometimes very difficult and very hard for them to get people on board," McNamara said of small towns hiring experienced firefighters. "Why not have that ability to be able to do it?

"I think the issue at hand is that you're almost telling people what they can and cannot do on their own free time."

In an interview with CBC News, McNamara pointed out that smaller municipalities pay to train many new volunteer firefighters, who, in turn, use the experience to secure full-time jobs at bigger, professional departments, while at the same time stay on to volunteer at the smaller department

"They provide fire protection services in small municipalities that do not require and could not possibly afford a full-time, salaried fire department," McNamara said

The IAFF argues that double-hatters weaken collective bargaining and there are a safety concerns because being part of the volunteer service is physically taxing.

McNamara explained many firefighters have other part-time jobs on their days off. Some of them, such as construction or contracting, are also physical.

But Santoro said the physical aspect isn't the entire issue.

"Roofing or whatever else ... is scheduled work, it's not emergency response where you don't know how long you're going to be at the call, it's very strenuous work, and you can't or shouldn't ever walk away from a structure fire and say 'You know what, I have to work tomorrow, I'm done here I can leave.' You can do that in a carpentry job, or a roofing job."

Toronto 'double-hatter' faces arbitration

AMO said the issue was brought to the forefront when the union of professional firefighters demanded Tom Hunse, who has been working in Toronto for 22 years and as a volunteer with Innisfil Fire Service for 26 years, be fired from his full-time job because he has not stopped his volunteer work.

Hunse is now set to face an arbitration hearing later this year.

Santoro said the problem with the Hunse case is that he is that "there's a full-time fire department there and a Toronto firefighter is working part-time in that community."

"That's where it violates our constitution. If that firefighter worked somewhere in some small community, north, wherever it may be, it does not have any impact on a full-time fire department. We have those members, we have no problem with that."

McNamara said the town of Tecumseh has lost 12 double-hatters over the years because of union policy.

"There's thousands of them in Ontario that are double-hatting, and many of them are doing it under the radar because of the fear of being forced out," he said. 

"If an individual wants to donate his time or volunteer his time or even on a part-time base contribute to their communities that they live in, and bring that experience on that level, they should be able to do so."