Armour Township Reeve Bob MacPhail says objections to a fire service agreement involving seven municipalities and five fire departments in Almaguin are based on old proposals no longer on the table.
Speaking at a Feb. 2 McMurrich Monteith council meeting, Coun. Alfred Bielke voiced several concerns with the proposed agreement, including how automatic aid will work.
Under automatic aid, firefighters from all five fire departments respond to a fire scene in one of the seven communities when the 911 call comes in.
It was Bielke's belief that in order for McMurrich Monteith to receive automatic aid, the municipality had to sign the agreement.
He called it akin to coercion.
MacPhail denies coercion exists, adding each community is free to opt in or out of the agreement.
But, he says, if they want to be part of the proposed service agreement, then to receive automatic aid, the equipment and training of all firefighters must be standardized.
“You can't have (personnel) from five fire halls showing up at a fire without standardized training,” MacPhail say. “They'd be coming with different levels of training and equipment. You just can't fight a fire safely by blending all those people together when there's no standardization.”
“If you want to be part of the automatic aid agreement, you have to buy into the standardization component and part of that is the training. It's black and white.”
At his council meeting, Bielke also referred to the proposed agreement as a regional fire department.
But MacPhail says that proposal died several years ago after the seven municipalities couldn't agree on a cost-sharing formula for a standalone building.
What emerged from the failed regional talks, he says, was the new service agreement reached last December. And the next step is to turn the document into a memorandum of understanding.
MacPhail is chair of the regional fire committee which, in addition to Armour and McMurrich Monteith, also includes Magnetawan, Burk's Falls, Ryerson, Kearney and Perry.
MacPhail is at a loss to explain how Bielke then made the leap from saying the formation of a regional fire department could potentially lead to regional government.
“We don't know where this came from,” MacPhail says, adding he and Armour town councillors discussed Bielke's comments at their town council meeting this past Tuesday.
“Alfred is talking, it appears, about a regional or district government, and no one is talking about that.”
MacPhail also addressed Bielke's concern that the individual municipalities would lose control of their fire department budgets, and that the fire committee could move equipment to any fire hall or close a fire hall.
“All these concepts are long gone,” says MacPhail, insisting they died with the regional fire department proposal.
“It's a discussion we had years ago and everyone said no. No one was prepared to go that far. What Alfred is saying was relevant years ago, but it's not relevant anymore.”
Under the service sharing agreement reached in December, MacPhail says, each municipality “has complete control over its own fire department.”
Bielke believes mutual aid is better than automatic aid. However, MacPhail disagrees.
“With mutual aid, if you expect firefighters to come from another municipality you also need firefighters to do a mutual aid call at some other time,” he says.
“I've heard some people say 'You don't have to worry too much about a fire department because with mutual aid your neighbours have to come to help.' Well they might come the first couple of times, but other fire departments will realize quickly if you have no fire department or a very small fire department, then that's not mutual aid. You have to be able to reciprocate.”
MacPhail says mutual aid also creates a critical timing issue.
When a fire crew arrives on scene and the fire chief puts out a mutual aid call for more help, as much as 45 to 60 minutes could lapse before neighbouring firefighters arrive.
Under automatic aid, he says, all five fire halls immediately respond.
“Automatic aid is the way to go,” MacPhail says.
“Their (the McMurrich Monteith) fire chief knows this. They just have to listen to him.”
MacPhail has agreed to meet with McMurrich Monteith council at its March 2 meeting to explain the fire service agreement.
“Some are talking about an old operating model,” he says.
“I want to make sure they understand what's happening now. I'm hoping, based on that, they'll have a different opinion of what's happening. If their reasons for opposing it is what they're saying publicly, then none of that is relevant anymore. The proposal is five independent fire halls. They keep complete control of their fire halls and every piece of equipment is theirs.”
Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative, The North Bay Nugget