Full Story: Firefighters return after tumultuous five days - Dec. 14, 2017
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Order has been restored and Fire Department of North Huron (FDNH) personnel are back on the job after a tumultuous five days and a special meeting of North Huron Council Monday night at the Emergency Services Training Centre.
This comes after a staff meeting last Thursday, which saw Deputy-Chiefs Matt Townsend and Chad Kregar and eight captains resign and the rest of the department walk out in solidarity.
While the majority of Monday night’s meeting was closed to the public, all members of the department were asked by council to be a part of it. The department’s stance was communicated by way of an impassioned speech by Captain Jeff Howson.
It should be noted, however, that while FDNH personnel had verbally resigned from their positions, they still responded to two emergency calls during that time, ensuring the community was protected.
Once in open session, council passed three motions, returning Acting Director of Fire Services/Fire Chief Mark Alderman to his post at the Training Centre and enacting legislation from a 2009 bylaw that appointed Deputy-Chiefs Matt Townsend (Blyth) and Chad Kregar (Wingham) as co-Acting Directors of Fire Services/Fire Chiefs by default. Council also passed a motion stating that FDNH personnel would be actively involved in the hiring of the next chief.
Chief Administrative Officer Dwayne Evans explained the 2009 bylaw, saying that it defaulted duties to deputy-chiefs in the event that the fire chief resigned, so no appointment was necessary if council was to look to that bylaw in the first place.
Howson said that when he spoke to council, it was important to communicate that what the department was doing was being done in the best interests of the North Huron community. He said he felt the message was heard loud and clear by council Monday night.
Shortly after 10 p.m. on Monday night, the Township of North Huron issued the following statement:
“The Township of North Huron and the Fire Department of North Huron are pleased to announce that outstanding issues have been resolved. Effective immediately, the Fire Department of North Huron will resume full emergency services and the Township of North Huron has committed to engage the Fire Department of North Huron in future discussions related to the fire department.
“The Township of North Huron also wishes to announce that Deputy-Chiefs Matt Townsend and Chad Kregar will assume the duties and responsibilities of the Director of Emergency and Fire Services (Fire Chief) until a permanent replacement has been hired. The Township of North Huron also wishes to announce the appointment of Mark Alderman as Principal of the Emergency Services Training Centre effective immediately.
“On Nov. 24, 2017, former Chief Ryan Ladner resigned as Director of Fire and Emergency Services effective Dec. 11.
“North Huron Reeve Neil Vincent stated, ‘The Township of North Huron truly values and appreciates the work of the Fire Department of North Huron. North Huron Council is very pleased the situation has been resolved to the satisfaction of both parties.’
“FDNH personnel are pleased with the common ground resolved and a positive outcome for our community.”
At the Dec. 7 meeting at the Training Centre, council named Alderman the Acting Fire Chief in the wake of Chief Ryan Ladner’s resignation. Evans, Deputy-Reeve James Campbell and Councillors Yolanda Ritsema-Teeninga and Brock Vodden attended the meeting.
After a private meeting amongst themselves, 41 members of the fire department walked into the centre’s meeting room to discuss the issue. After being invited by firefighters, reporters for The Citizen were asked to leave by North Huron staff because the meeting was classified as a private staff meeting.
After the meeting, Townsend, Kregar, Captain Jeff Howson and numerous other firefighters informed The Citizen that they had resigned from the fire department.
Townsend told The Citizen on Friday morning that the decision was due to irreconcilable differences between the firefighters and North Huron.
In the meantime, North Huron enacted a contingency plan that included the Huron County mutual aid plan and neighbouring fire departments in the case of an emergency.
Townsend wanted ratepayers to know they were safe during this period.
“We haven’t turned our back on our ratepayers, we’ve been in contact with the mutual aid co-ordinator for the county. We, the people that left, wanted to make sure the ratepayers of North Huron were protected and were left in a situation where they are covered under mutual aid.
“I spoke at great length with Huron County mutual aid coordinator and Goderich Chief Steve Gardner and the other chiefs in the county last night,” Townsend said prior to the FDNH resolution being reached.
North Huron Council held another special meeting at 3 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 8, which was closed to the public. Out of that meeting, two motions were passed. The first stated that North Huron Council would direct staff to bring together captains from both the Blyth and Wingham fire stations for the special council meeting on Monday night. The second motion stated that a representative of the Ontario Fire Marshal’s office would be invited to that meeting. Both motions were carried.
Over the weekend, members of the FDNH issued the following statement:
“To our community: Fire Department of North Huron (FDNH) personnel were forced to take drastic measures due to the lack of support and recognition of North Huron Council on a very serious matter impacting our community.
“FDNH personnel provided North Huron Council with ‘the right solution to a very serious situation’.
“Not only was a solution presented to Reeve Neil Vincent and the CAO prior to any announcements, FDNH personnel made a last-ditch effort to representatives of council offering a 30-day period for North Huron and senior-ranking representatives of FDNH personnel to come up with a solution.
“In that time, FDNH personnel would respond to emergency calls in our community. FDNH personnel would not partake in extra normally-performed duties; only emergency calls.
“North Huron Council chose not to work with their emergency services.
“FDNH personnel want a quick resolution. FDNH personnel have been requested to a meeting Monday, Dec. 11, 2017 in the evening to meet with a representative of the Ontario Fire Marshal and council. Due to the severity of this issue, FDNH personnel were prepared to meet this past Friday or Saturday to come to a quick and timely resolution so the community we serve was not left with uncertainties. FDNH personnel will attend the meeting, but are very discouraged by the timelines created and North Huron’s obvious lack of value put forward regarding time on such a serious issue affecting all of our community.”
In an interview with The Citizen on Monday morning, Councillor Brock Vodden chalks the entire situation up to a lack of communication.
He said that while firefighters have spoke about complaints being filed and concerns being raised, he and the rest of council didn’t realize the severity of them. There will always be complaints, he said, but he didn’t realize they were this critical.
Being thrust into an adversarial role with the fire department, however, he said is unfortunate, because that’s not how he’s seen council’s relationship with the fire department over the years.
“My impression going back for years is that council and the firefighters are a team; we’re friends,” Vodden said. “We’re so proud of them and so concerned about the importance of their work. To be viewed as enemies, that’s a very difficult pill to swallow.”
Vodden added that it’s a terrible situation and he felt there was certainly fault on both sides. However, he didn’t feel the situation was beyond repair.
“We need to come together,” he said, adding that a night of open, calm discussion could do wonders.