Calgary

Didsbury fire chief steps down after half his firefighters quit

Fire Chief Craig Martin steps down after half his volunteers in Didsbury, Alta., quit in protest over what they're calling "safety concerns."

Volunteers complained, prompting town to order safety audit due next month

Fifteen Didsbury Fire Department members have quit in protest of working conditions. Pictured here are Mackenzie Code, left, and Matthew Code, centre. Both left their jobs in the last week. (Matthew Code)

Fire Chief Craig Martin stepped down Monday after half his crew in Didsbury, Alta., quit in protest over what they're calling "safety concerns."

During the past few months, 15 of the 31 volunteer firefighters from the department have resigned from their on-call positions. 

Crew members started complaining last spring, sending a series of letters to the town detailing issues with the chief, his leadership and decisions he has made in the field. The town ordered an investigation, which ruled several of the complaints were founded.

Nine firefighters resigned in the summer. A further six quit in the past week after negotiations failed to solve the dispute.

Reached Monday by phone, Martin declined to respond to the allegations.

"I'm actually resigning as of today. I don't have any comment," Martin said. "I appreciate the outreach but at this point I don't have any comment. I apologize."

When asked why he was resigning, he declined to answer and ended the call.

In a news release posted later in the day, the Town of Didsbury confirmed Martin gave notice Monday that he was ending his contract effective immediately. Didsbury protective services manager Deron Reimer was appointed acting fire chief in his absence.

More firefighters resigned from the Didsbury Fire Department last week, the town announced. (Town of Didsbury)

Town officials have not said how this may affect fire protection in the region.

The Didsbury Fire Department, which covers a swath of rural Alberta between Calgary and Red Deer, is run by volunteers who receive an honorarium at the end of each year, based on how many calls they take on.

Many work full-time as EMTs or firefighters for other stations or in the oilsands. Martin works with the Calgary Fire Department, and has volunteered in Didsbury for about a decade. He took on the fire chief role in the past few years.

Safety audit due soon

Martin's decision to resign came as a surprise to former crew member Matthew Code, who himself stepped down just last week.

"I'm interested to know why he decided to now and not earlier," the former lieutenant said.

The firefighters' complaints were investigated in the spring. The third-party report, released in July, found the chief "often responds alone" to calls and that the department lacked formal safety and operating procedures.

The town placed Martin on a 12-month review and ordered him to develop such procedures. Officials also ordered a safety audit, which is due in October.

Some firefighters with the Didsbury Fire Department have spoken to town council about their frustrations. Multiple officers submitted complaints to administration. (Didsbury Fire Department/Facebook)

As a solution to the dispute, some firefighters asked the town bring back the resigned volunteers in exchange for demoting Martin and the deputy chiefs to regular firefighters.

"They would kind of almost share blame for everything going off the rails and then fill those positions with new people," Code said. "That was turned down last week."

The investigation also found deputy chiefs seemed to be "undermining" the chief's authority.

'Think long and hard' about returning

Peter Klanten, one of the first to step down, said he'd consider returning in light of Martin's resignation — if the town apologizes for how the complaints were handled.

"I'd have to think long and hard about it. We've been mistreated by the town pretty poorly and it's something that I can't take lightly," Klanten said. "But who knows. The town might not even want us back, so who knows."

Recruitment is challenging for some Alberta fire departments due to the low pay, risk and large time commitment a volunteer position requires. Didsbury is running a recruitment drive now but it's not clear if it has received applications.

Across much of rural Alberta, local emergencies are handled by volunteer fire departments that are expected to have crews on-call to respond.

About the Author

Rachel Ward

Journalist

Rachel Ward is a journalist with CBC Calgary. You can reach her with questions or story ideas at rachel.ward@cbc.ca.

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