Central Manitoulin fire department struggling due to drive test backlog
Only 12 of the fire department's 38 firefighters are licensed to drive the fire trucks
The Municipality of Central Manitoulin's fire department is currently stretched thin. There are plenty of people signed up as volunteer firefighters, but out of a roster of 38, only 12 are licensed to drive the fire trucks.
"We're doing the best we can with what we have and whatever circumstances," said fire chief Philip Gosse. But still, he said, it's stressful.
Gosse said the shortage of licensed drivers is tied to a backlog of drive tests, which spans across the province. Ontario cancelled all road tests for several months in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and took the same action again earlier this year. Hundreds of thousands of drive tests have been cancelled amid the disruptions.
He said six firefighters are ready to take their road tests and more will be ready in the months ahead, but they haven't been able to book appointments until the end of June.
Gosse, along with elected officials, is calling on the province to increase testing capacity for his community and others in northern Ontario.
'We're kind of caught'
Gosse himself is among those waiting for a test to get his class D licence with a Z air brake endorsement. That's what he needs in order to drive a fire truck. Until recently, he said, he "was just the guy at the end of the hose," so he didn't need to be able to drive the truck. But in recent months, the department has lost several drivers.
"Our chief passed away on July 1, so that's one driver. Our deputy chief retired, so there's another driver, and there's a few more firefighters who have left the force so there's four or five people who could have driven who are now not on the force," Gosse said.
"All of a sudden, now we're kind of caught."
In an ideal world, Gosse said, all 38 firefighters would be able to drive the trucks. For now, he said the department is still able to respond to all calls and those with their licences "are picking up the slack." However, he said coverage is particularly tight during the day, since many people work outside of the municipality.
Mayor, MPP concerned
The situation in Central Manitoulin is cause for concern for Mayor Richard Stephens.
"Our community is like a lot of rural communities. We have a big area to cover, we have a volunteer fire team and we need to have as many of them as possible in a position to be able to move equipment when it's needed," Stephens said.
It shouldn't be like this … especially for an emergency.— Central Manitoulin fire chief Philip Gosse
The municipality recently wrote a letter to Michael Mantha, the MPP for Algoma-Manitoulin. Mantha said he was frustrated, though not surprised to hear about the situation the fire department is dealing with.
"This is not unique to Central Manitoulin, this is something that I've heard over the course of years, even prior to the pandemic," Mantha said, though he said the situation in Central Manitoulin is "very urgent at this time."
Mantha said he would like to see the province invest in additional road testers throughout northern Ontario. He said current plans to add an additional examiner at each drive test centre in the province "won't make a dent" in the backlog in northern Ontario.
Gosse agreed, saying there needs to be more testing available.
"I understand COVID has put a backlog on everything, you know, from ordering something from Home Hardware to doing this. But it shouldn't be like this, especially for, I'm sorry, but especially for an emergency," Gosse said.
In a statement to CBC, Jordanna Colwilll, a spokesperson for Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney, blamed the previous Liberal government for a lack of road test capacity in the north, which she said existed prior to the pandemic.
She said the additional driving examiners will be deployed across northern Ontario by the end of the fall, which she said is expected to increase testing capacity in the region by 150 per cent.
The statement also said the ministry is working closely with fire departments to ensure they have access to testing as soon as possible.