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Northern Ontario fire chiefs react to cancellation of new firefighter training rules

Volunteer firefighters in northwestern Ontario are reacting to news that the new provincial government is revoking new training requirements, with a mixture of disappointment and relief.

Cancellation responds to concerns from rural, northern municipalities, says province

While he considered some aspects of the regulations "unrealistic" for volunteer fire stations to achieve, Shuniah Ont. fire chief Blair Arthur said nevertheless, news that the new training rules had been revoked entirely came as a disappointment. (James Brown, Shuniah Fire & Emergency Services public information officer)

Volunteer firefighters in northwestern Ontario are reacting with a mixture of disappointment and relief to news that the provincial government is revoking new training requirements.

The new rules, which were brought in by the previous government in May, mandated standardized training for volunteer firefighters across the province. 

On Friday, fire chiefs were informed by email that the regulations were being pulled back. 

It was welcome news for Tyler Moffitt, chief of the volunteer fire department in Fort Frances, Ont., who had previously expressed concerns about the rules.

"It was going to be a nightmare," for volunteers to comply, he said, mainly because of the timeline.

"You know, hiring someone after July 1 2019, they would have two years to become certified, and that was too short of a timeframe," he said, adding that associated costs for the training were also worrisome. 

Many volunteer fire stations had concerns about aspects of the regulations, said Blair Arthur, chief of the volunteer fire department in Shuniah, a rural municipality located just east of Thunder Bay, Ont.

But while he didn't like everything about the rules, including the one-size-fits all nature of the requirements, Arthur said the news of the cancellation still came as a surprise. 

Outright cancellation 'disappointing'

"It was disappointing news for sure," he said, adding that he is in favour of mandatory standardized training, and that a lot of work was already being done to prepare. 

"We're still moving forward with our own strategy to see mandatory certification in Shuniah fire and emergency services, that's going to be achievable and attainable and sustainable for us here." 

Arthur said he shared concerns that the timeline under the previous rules was not realistic, because it would have taken eight weeks of training over two years for volunteers to meet the minimum standard

"So staff would have to take their own personal time [to train] — four weeks a year. Most people don't even have four weeks of holidays a year," he said. 

The revoked rules standardized firefighter training regulations across the province. (www.dryden.ca)

The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs had endorsed the idea of mandatory training and certification across the province, said Warren Brinkman, who sits on the association's board. 

Brinkman, who also serves as chief of the Longbow Lake Fire Department, said he was disappointed to hear the regulations were being revoked, and he hopes that the government will tweak the regulations and re-instate mandatory rules, along with more funding and support for fire stations. 

"The last government came out and said that this was going to be fully funded ... and that communities small and large would have access to funds and training mechanisms and venues. And that just didn't materialize," he said. 

The need for mandatory training standards will be a topic of discussion at an upcoming meeting of northern Ontario firefighters in Thunder Bay on Oct. 20, he said. 

The decision to revoke the certification regulation came in response to feedback from municipalities and stakeholders, and "in particular, small, rural and northern municipalities with volunteer fire departments," said Brett Weltman, press secretary for the minister of community safety and correctional services, in a written statement. 

"We are definitely supportive of the certification of firefighters in general, and the safety of our firefighters, their colleagues, and the public remains one of our top priorities," he said.