The province is moving quickly to boost rural fire departments by protecting the ability of full-time firefighters to also serve as volunteers in the smaller communities where they live, the so-called double hatters.
Minister of Labour Laurie Scott last week announced amendments to the Fire Protection and Prevention Act 1997. If passed, full-time firefighters who “wear two hats” will be protected from any loss of employment or fines associated with the practice.
The announcement was welcomed by Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Mike Harris, who recently held a roundtable discussion about the issue.
“In my meetings with township mayors and chiefs, they were clear that professional firefighters, or so-called ‘double hatters,’ provide an indispensable resource in expertise and leadership to a volunteer model which would be difficult and expensive to replace,” said Harris in a statement. “A volunteer-based recruitment model is crucial for the viability of rural fire services in our region and across Ontario.”
The decision was announced when Harris met last week with Scott at the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs’ annual general meeting in Niagara Falls.
There are some 19,000 volunteer/paid-on-call frontline responders across Ontario, serving 220 fire services. In the region, some 350 volunteer firefighters serve in the townships of Wellesley, Woolwich, Wilmot and North Dumfries.
There are nearly 50 professional firefighters who volunteer their free time to serve locally, Harris said.
The issue has come up more recently, after a handful of “double hatters” across the province, specifically Caledon and Halton Hills, were faced with charges up to $24,000 for engaging in volunteer activities.
The union for full-time firefighters, looking to grow its ranks, has long opposed the practice, arguing that it puts stress on larger fire departments that might be on the hook for benefits or medical costs of firefighters who get sick while volunteering elsewhere.
Local fire chiefs, however, welcomed the proposed legislation, noting that the expertise of full-time firefighters is a boon to their smaller departments.
“It’s a long time coming,” said Wellesley fire chief Paul Redman. “It’s nice that is was finally acted upon. It’s a pleasant surprise to see how fast that happened. I think it’s a nice olive branch that this government is doing for the fire service.
“I know it’s not something that everybody’s happy with, and I know the unions aren’t overly excited about it, but it shows a good-faith measure from the government so far.”
Woolwich fire chief Dale Martin noted that the goal was to have this change made before the end of the year, although the exact timeline has yet to be determined.
“At the end of the day it’s the community that benefits as well,” said Martin. “It hasn’t been a real big issue for us at this point yet, but this will prevent it from becoming a problem.”
Changes to the legislation may also benefit young people looking for a career as firefighters, as rural departments will be more open to providing them with volunteer experience, Redman suggested.
“Sometimes there are departments that when they know someone is looking to get hired full-time, they might not bring them on because they figure they’re going to have them for a year and then they’re going to lose them,” he explained. “They’re going to spend a lot of money on training these employees, and then as soon as they get hired, they’re going to leave.”
The new legislation would alleviate that worry since small towns depend on the work of volunteer firefighters.
“Now that I know that we’re not necessarily going to lose somebody if they get hired somewhere,” said Redman. It’s tough enough to find firefighters, to begin with. It’s win-win because I can send people off on courses that benefit them to try and get jobs as a full-time firefighter. But because they’re given the training, it also benefits us. And it works with our training regimen, and it helps us two ways.”