Miller responds to concerns over Ontario Fire College closure

·4 min read

Parry Sound Muskoka MPP Norm Miller doesn't believe closing the Ontario Fire College in Gravenhurst will affect fire training.

The new model of regional training centres, Miller says, will save money because firefighters won't have to travel as far.

Concerns raised by municipalities include rural volunteer firefighters running into online learning challenges when experiencing unreliable internet service and municipalities spending hundreds of dollars more to send their firefighters to regional training centres.

Miller says once the college closes at the end of this month, much of the training will be done at fire stations.

He says in cases like Magnetawan, Burk's Falls or Armour Township, the personnel can have a learning contract and meet “at one spot, preferably where they have the best internet."

Miller says COVID-19 made it clear that with people working and learning from home, the internet has become a necessity “and it's something the government is trying to increase access to."

To that end, the Minister of the Solicitor General announced Thursday a $5-million program to enhance fire safety training and inspections across Ontario.

In part, the funding enhances in-person and online educational instruction by increasing access to additional training.

Miller says the program will support specialized critical equipment, like high-speed internet, to enhance virtual training for firefighters.

Miller doesn't believe it will cost more to send a firefighter to a regional training centre as some officials maintain.

He says the learning contracts the firefighters will use will be the same subsidized $65 amount municipalities now pay to send their firefighters to the college.

Miller says there should actually be a savings for the municipalities because they won't have to pay as much in mileage to send someone to the fire college.

With 20 regional training centres proposed, Miller says the goal is to have them spread evenly so there's not as much travel involved to get to one of the facilities.

Miller says Huntsville is one of the communities tapped to house a regional training centre.

“So someone from Burk's Falls can train for the day, come home and have dinner at home,” Miller said.

“So there wouldn't be all those costs.”

Miller's reference to cost is the claim municipalities have to pay firefighters for stays at hotels and eating at restaurants when they attend a regional training centre.

He adds with a training facility closer to home, the volunteer firefighters don't have to take time off their day jobs because they will have an option to train at one of the facilities during the weekend.

Another concern with the college closing is firefighters will have a harder time practising on live burn units.

But Miller says this is not the case.

He says many of the regional training centres will have burn units and for the ones that don't have any, the province has two mobile burn units that will travel to those regional centres.

“So the mobile burn units aren't required everywhere and there would be far less demand for them,” he said.

Miller adds notwithstanding this, the Ontario government will monitor how the mobile burn units are working out.

Miller says contrary to claims, the Ontario government did consult before announcing the closure.

He says the consultation was with the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, which represents municipalities to the provincial government.

Asked why the provincial government is closing the fire college and Miller cited utilization as one reason.

Quoting figures from the last five years, Miller says a total of 10,775 firefighters took courses at the college.

“That works out to about 2,155 per year over five years,” he said.

Miller wasn't able to say if the figure represented a drop in participation but he noted that each year 20 to 30 per cent of the bookings at the college are cancelled.

He also said the people who are fire experts “support this modernized program."

Miller says that includes the Fire Fighters Association of Ontario, the Professional Firefighters Association, the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs and the Ontario Fire Marshal.

He says each individual who heads these four organizations has spoken in favour of the new model.

The fire college sits in Miller's riding and he told The Nugget “obviously I want to see the property well utilized”.

To that end he's been working with Gravenhurst Mayor Paul Kelly “and we've been brainstorming on various possibilities."

“Certainly the mayor and council will be involved in looking at future possibilities,” Miller said.

“They'll be interested in something that generates employment for the area and doesn't put pressure on the use of Lake Muskoka which is where the college sits.”

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