ESTC needs quick decisions to thrive: Kregar - March 1, 2018
BY DENNY SCOTT
The Emergency Services Training Centre (ESTC) has been left in a bad situation after staff turnover at the site damaged its reputation according to Fire Department of North Huron (FDNH) Deputy-Chief Chad Kregar.
Kregar, who took over for former principal of the site Mark Alderman, who left the township in December, made a presentation to North Huron Council during its Feb. 20 meeting. Kregar said that the centre may be able to recover, but it would require council to move quickly on training opportunities.
Kregar explained that he and firefighter Ken DeVries had been managing the centre with occasional help from Deputy-Chief Matt Townsend, whose involvement with the centre had declined after taking over duties of managing equipment with the fire department.
Kregar, who has seen the facility from all possible angles, being a student, instructor, lead instructor, co-ordinator, course designer and now administration, explained that he agreed to “steer the ship in the time of crisis” after the FDNH faced losing all its firefighters late last year when a schism between council and the firefighters developed when Alderman was named chief after the resignation of former chief Ryan Ladner.
“I’ve been working the phone and e-mails through Dwayne [Evans, North Huron Chief Administrative Officer] and I’m happy to say we have the Ontario Fire College back on board,” he said. “They are coming to the point that they will pay for instructors to come as well as pay myself and Ken salaries to get programming going for May 1. I have to get a few things lined up, and, if this goes over, they are going to bring more courses.”
Kregar explained that a lot of what he has done since taking over in December was “repairing damages” from the past.
The Ontario Fire Academy, for example, had left in late 2017 as the operations of the centre weren’t sufficient for the group, Kregar said.
“The props weren’t working,” he said, referring to the dedicated spaces and special equipment that allow training at the site. “All it’s going to take is one more phone call and they are back on board.”
Kregar was hesitant to make that phone call, however, as he didn’t know what support council was going to provide for the centre.
“The biggest problem we have right now is... I don’t know where the centre is going to be in six months,” he said. “I’m taking questions, and I’m giving the information that I can, but I’m not going to lie to anyone. People are saying they are glad I’m there because I’m the only thing that’s constant at the training centre.”
As far as programming at the centre over the next six months, Kregar said council had, in his mind, five options.
“One, we can close the ESTC,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the best option as we will lose the little economic spin-off we have.”
The second option was to maintain the status quo by hiring someone to sit at the centre and do what Kregar is doing right now: answer phones and schedule programs.
“That might bring a little [additional] economic impact,” he said.
The third option Kregar presented was to work with the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, an organization North Huron is seeking assistance from in replacing Chief Ryan Ladner who also left the department last year.
“They would do all the registration and book work, we just need someone to run the training facility,” Kregar said.
Fourth, Kregar suggested forming a board to guide the centre. Whle the suggestion had been made to council in the past, no action had been taken.
The board, if adopted in a manner similar to what was previously presented to council, would make decisions about the centre and its direction, negating the need for constant council oversight, streamlining the process for adopting new and lucrative training opportunities.
Finally, Kregar said the last option was to sell the ESTC.
Kregar said he felt if there are no courses at the ESTC in 2018, he fears it won’t recover.
“That’s my gut feeling,” he said. “Last year, we didn’t have a lot of courses.”
Councillor Trevor Seip said that council had previously said it would invest in the ESTC with hopes of it breaking even, if not becoming a viable business. Kregar said getting there would be difficult due to the fixed costs for the centre which, in previous documentation, has included utility costs and a $1.2 million loan taken out to build the centre.
Seip said none of the solutions council has tried have had time to succeed and he still felt the centre is worthy of investment by the township.
“That’s still my opinion,” he said. “We haven’t had enough [staff time] there to know what’s possible. Every time we get [someone], something goes off the rails.”
Kregar said he feels the centre is worth fighting for because of its benefit to the community, but he feels it keeps getting delayed as far as council commitment goes.
“We have to make it a priority or we’re going to lose it,” he said. “We need to have one person [responsible] for the ESTC. You can’t be fighting a barn fire when you’re supposed to be fielding phone calls for a course that’s supposed to happen next week.”
Seip agreed, saying council should push forward with supporting the site.
Kregar, responding to a statement from Councillor Brock Vodden about managing the centre, said that council is management for the ESTC and that things need to move faster at the council table.
“We’ve spent thousands building [a marine firefighting] program and we haven’t lost it completely yet,” he said. “The biggest problem, according to [the program organizers] is that they get everything in place then there is a six- to seven-month delay for council to make a decision.”
Kregar said that time frame may be a slight exaggeration, but did say the program had already been opened at Georgian College, meaning there is already more competition.
“If the Fire College is going to reimburse us for our costs [on the program], we need to come up with a plan and pricing,” he said.
Seip, however, felt that council wasn’t being portrayed fairly in Kregar’s assessment of the situation.
“The clerk or the reeve has the ability to call a meeting at any point,” he said. “Time shouldn’t be an object. We do have the ability to call a meeting if we so desire. The issue I’m seeing here is that we’re not getting anything at the council table to make a decision. I heard a lot of talk about the marine program, but nothing on paper that said we could make a decision.”
Seip said if there were documents that council could act on, council would act swiftly in the future while Reeve Neil Vincent said not enough information was getting to council.
Vodden said he didn’t feel Kregar’s assessment was accurate, as council didn’t delay on any issues he could recall.
The Citizen, however, previously reported on documents, including an all-encompassing, 55-page consultant’s review of the centre, taking as long as five months to be put in front of council after being delivered to North Huron administration by FDNH staff.
Kregar said he would continue to do the job to get documentation to council until someone could be hired to do the job.
“My message to everyone right now is we’re moving forward and that information [council is requesting] will be there,” he said.
Moments after pledging to support the ESTC in hopes of making it a successful business venture for the municipality, North Huron Council added $70,000 to its accumulated debt.
The centre has been running a deficit since 2012, totalling $214,790 at the end of 2016.
Immediately after FDNH staff presented a report regarding the need for direction at the centre, Director of Finance Donna White asked council for its direction regarding a $70,000 shortfall within the ESTC’s budget, which had fluctuating management throughout 2017.
Originally, a deficit of $51,487 was expected in 2017 as Ladner and, later, Alderman, saw the year as a rebuilding opportunity.
Unfortunately, with few training sessions held at the centre and upheaval in FDNH administration, the site more than doubled its projected deficit for the year, running up a total of $122,258.27.
Council, given the option to apply the deficit to general taxation by White, decided to apply it to the ongoing deficit of the ESTC, increasing it to more than $335,000.