Nova Scotia

'Time is running out': CBRM under pressure to hire new fire chief

The union representing career firefighters in Sydney, N.S., says a new fire chief needs to be hired soon to deal with longstanding issues including bullying and harassment.

Union says unresolved workplace issues are piling up as municipality turns to professional recruiting firm

Cape Breton Regional Fire Service has been without a chief for five months. The municipality has hired a recruiting firm after its own efforts failed to find a suitable candidate. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The union representing full-time firefighters in Sydney, N.S., has a long list of complaints — including bullying and harassment — against management.

But firefighters aren't expecting those to be resolved until Cape Breton Regional Municipality hires a new fire chief.

The municipality has been without a chief since the end of December. It's been through two rounds of applications and interviews without finding a successful candidate.

CBRM is now getting ready to tender for the services of a recruiting firm to try to fill the position.

'Terrible time in fire service'

Jody Wrathall, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2779, said fire service employees are fed up with waiting.

"It's really a terrible time in the fire service because of these issues," he said.

As a regional municipality, CBRM has a large fire service, with full-time career firefighters based in Sydney and more than 30 volunteer departments covering the former towns and county area.

Last year, both the career firefighters union and the association of volunteer fire chiefs passed motions of non-confidence in CBRM fire service management.

In addition to allegations of safety issues, lack of training, inadequate gear and pay, the union says employees have been bullied and harassed by management. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The volunteer chiefs have worked out some of their differences, but Wrathall said the union feels it is being ignored.

In addition to employee allegations of bullying and harassment, the firefighters union has long complained of safety issues, lack of training, inadequate gear and pay.

"It's almost like they tried to draw a line in the sand," said Wrathall.

"'We're going to move forward and let's forget about the past. Let's forget about all the abusive behaviour. Let's forget about everyone that was harassed or stuff like that and let's just move forward from here forward,' and it doesn't work that way."

Deputy chief Gilbert MacIntyre said a diesel emissions system would cost $60,000 to replace, but an occupational health and safety report found there was no problem. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Earlier this year, the union complained about diesel emissions in the Esplanade station.

Deputy chief Gilbert MacIntyre said the venting system would cost $60,000 to replace and an occupational health and safety report found there was no problem.

Wrathall said no air quality testing has been done and the emissions are still an outstanding issue.

He said the venting system doesn't have to be replaced and could be repaired for far less than $60,000.

Council committee may get involved

Until now, most of the issues have been dealt with at the union and management levels.

Darren Bruckschwaiger, a member of CBRM council's fire and emergency services committee, spearheaded a move in February to get the committee to meet more often.

At that time, the committee hadn't met for nearly a year. At Bruckschwaiger's urging, the committee changed the schedule to require meetings bimonthly or more often, if the chair determined there was a need.

Council ratified the change. However, the committee still hasn't met, more than two months later.

Deputy Mayor Ivan Doncaster said the committee should have met in May, but held off while waiting for a new fire chief. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Last week, Bruckschwaiger said he planned to get things moving at the political level.

Deputy Mayor Ivan Doncaster, chair of the committee, said Monday the committee should have met in May, but held off at the request of chief administrative officer Marie Walsh.

Doncaster said Walsh felt the committee should wait until it got a new fire chief.

Last week, after failing to find a suitable candidate in two rounds of hiring efforts, the municipality decided to tender for the services of a national recruiting firm.

'Time is running out'

Doncaster said if there isn't a new chief by the end of June, he will call a committee meeting.

"The time is running out on us," he said.

"We've got to get something done. There's a couple of other issues on the table that have come forward that have to be addressed."

Doncaster said CBRM staff on the hiring committee had found a couple of good candidates, but there was some concern they might not make a long-term move to the municipality.

Howie Centre volunteer fire chief Jim Prince said anything that's going to cost a lot of money is not going to get done until a new chief is hired. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Jim Prince, head of the volunteer chiefs association, said the group's non-confidence motion still stands, but relations have improved between the volunteer chiefs and management.

"For the last eight months, we've been running very smoothly with regards to dealing with Cape Breton regional fire service," he said.

"We've been running on a very positive note and we're getting a few things done now."

However, Prince said, the fire service must find a new chief.

Fire service overhaul recommended

Without one, it's been difficult to implement many of the larger changes suggested in a three-year-old, wide-ranging consultant's report on overhauling CBRM's fire services, Prince said.

That review, by U.S.-based Manitou Inc., suggested merging some rural volunteer departments, increasing efforts to recruit and retain volunteers and purchasing new equipment, among other recommendations.

"Anything that's going to cost a lot of money is not going to get done until we get a new chief in there, and that's going to take some time," said Prince.

Wrathall said the municipality might be having difficulty finding a chief candidate because there is a long list of problems to be resolved.

The list of required qualifications is also "through the roof" and the pay is low, he said.

"I mean, captains in Halifax make what they're offering for the fire chief here in Sydney, so who's going to come here for that?"

About the Author

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years. He has spent the last 16 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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