It’s one thing upon which most firefighters agree – they’re there for their communities.
One way they back that up is by opening their halls for residents during times of emergency. Such was the case in September 2019, when Hurricane Dorian whipped through Nova Scotia. The storm left homes without power and heat for days.
All fire halls in the Region of Queens Municipality (RQM) opened their doors to allow people to warm up, have a hot meal and charge their phones. However, they were later scolded by the municipality for doing so since there had been a 72-hour shelter-in-place order at the time.
The issue has sparked a firestorm of controversy, and pitted the departments against the municipality and the Emergency Measures Organization (EMO), as the groups attempt to arrive at a mutually-satisfactory Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).
“We have been portrayed as people making the public going out in a dangerous situation. We’re not going to wait for 72 hours before we open our hall,” said Greenfield Fire Chief Moyal Conrad. “It was also said that we were just doing it for the money,” he lamented.
Some of the fire departments submitted bills to the region to cover such costs as generator fuel, including, eventually, Greenfield’s volunteer fire department.
As a follow-up to Dorian with the fire departments, a meeting with RQM and EMO staff and some members of the public was held in February 2020 in Milton.
Several meetings between fire chiefs, RQM staff and EMO Coordinator Brian Hatt have been held since then, with the aim of hammering out a new MOU that works for the fire departments and RQM.
It was to be drafted between RQM, the fire halls and community halls. After numerous revisions, the newest and what was hoped would be the final draft was brought forward to RQM council on January 12, 2021.
The MOU sets out how much centres can be compensated for rental, gas, food and other items. It stipulates that if centres want compensation for opening up, they must first be requested to do so by Hatt, and only the municipal-established emergency shelters would open when needed and in agreed-upon locations by Hatt.
A few of the councillors said fire departments in their districts didn’t agree with the terms it contained.
Councillor David Brown noted there have been some changes since a draft of the MOU was shared with the fire departments in August and argued that a vote should not be taken until the fire chiefs are further consulted on a final agreement. He explained that the fire chiefs were not necessarily against the MOU, but with the process of arriving at one.
However, Chris McNeill, the chief administrative officer for RQM, indicated there was nothing in this latest agreement that the fire chiefs would not be aware of.
McNeill said Hatt has been in communication with the fire chiefs all the way along.
RQM Mayor Darlene Norman suggested that everyone should have had plenty of time to review the document.
While Councillor Ralph Gidney said that a provision for a yearly preview should also be included.
A decision on the MOU is now scheduled to be tabled at the RQM’s council meeting on February 23, with seven in favour of doing so and one against.
“They kept asking us at meetings, what do we want, what do you want?” lamented Conrad. “In one of the meetings I walked out. There’s been so much false information spread about the fire departments wanting this, wanting that. Now I just want an apology,” he said.
“They keep on trying to fix the agreement. They kept on lying to us all through this process,” he insisted. “Didn’t CAO Chris McNeill say at one of the recent council meetings that we might just be doing this for fundraising efforts?”
Conrad contends that any such claim is ridiculous and he will continue to open the doors of the fire hall, with or without an agreement.
Meanwhile, fire chiefs from North Queens, Port Medway, Liverpool and Mill Village agree there are still some underlying issues with the proposed agreement. They too suggested that, no matter what happens with the MOU, their halls will be open to residents during emergencies.
“For myself, it being brought up again was a shock, because we weren’t aware it was going to be brought up at this meeting,” said Chris Wolfe, fire chief for the North Queens Fire Department.
One of the issues that he would like to be resolved is getting a cost per head of people staying or using a hall instead of a set cost as suggested in the MOU.
John Long, captain of the Liverpool Fire Department, welcomed the fact the departments will have a bit more time to make their views known before an agreement is put in place.
“We’re here for community support. We don’t just put out fires, we’re here to help,” said Long. “This is why we do flooded basements, and yes we’ve had to save an occasional dog in a culvert and more than one cat in a tree.”
James MacAleese, captain and public relations officer for the Port Medway Fire Department, said they will not be involved in the MOU because there were some requirements like showers and a few other things that will prevent them from being an official centre.
Donald Whynot, fire chief of Mill Village, said it doesn’t matter if the MOU passes or not; he has never sought compensation from RQM for opening.
In any case, he said, all of the municipality’s fire chiefs will either sign it collectively, or none will.
Kevin McBain, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, LighthouseNOW Progress Bulletin