Sundridge-Strong fire chief warns service gaps imminent

The Sundridge-Strong Fire Board has formally acknowledged there are gaps in the level of service the current volunteer fire department offers. It further agreed that the service gaps need to be addressed and that potential solutions be discussed when the board meets at its March 9th meeting. The decision to move forward recognizing the need to address service gaps is the result of Fire Chief Andrew Torrance writing a report to the new fire board members that stems from a discussion the previous board had last spring. At a June 9th 2022 Sundridge-Strong Fire Board meeting, Torrance raised a concern about the fire department's ability to maintain the existing level of service. As Torrance identified, part of the service gaps arise when he's away from the office to either attend professional development events or take a vacation. But before Torrance can be away he needs to ensure someone can take his place among the volunteer firefighters. That's always challenging because the firefighters have full time jobs outside the fire department. In his report Torrance notes over the past several years it's become increasingly more difficult to have that appropriate coverage in place. Torrance adds because it's tougher to provide that coverage so he can be away, he in fact has not attended training courses, professional development events or taken vacation days just to make sure there are no gaps in the level of fire service. Torrance is the only paid employee with the Sundridge-Strong Fire Department. The volunteers receive a small stipend. At one point under the previous terms of the Sundridge and Strong town councils, there was a discussion on hiring a fire prevention officer which would allow Torrance to take time off. Under a program through the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation, the provincial government would have picked up the majority of the officer's salary for the first year. While Sundridge supported the idea, Strong did not since both municipalities would be on the hook for the fire prevention officer's full salary in subsequent years. The idea never moved forward beyond that point under the previous town councils. Torrance's new report to the fire board doesn't make any reference to a fire prevention officer. However the new Mayor of Strong, Tim Bryson, briefly mentioned there is a need for a fire prevention officer when the fire board met at its inaugural meeting on January 12th. At that same meeting Torrance told the board “one person is not able to manage it all”. Torrance provided examples of what service gaps may look like and among them were a lack of adequate supervision, incurring longer response times and even experiencing reduced responders to a fire call. Torrance said as the Fire Chief he needs to continue taking training courses, attending professional development events in addition to going to various meetings. He says a training course can sometimes last five days meaning he's not around locally to manage the affairs of the fire department. If Torrance is off on a five day training course and no one replaces him then the local work doesn't get done plus there's the risk of not having an incident commander in an emergency. Torrance says he has not used his vacation credits and has only taken limited time off to prevent service gaps. However in his report to the board Torrance made it clear that at the present time “there is no clear mechanism to ensure appropriate coverage when I am away for any reason.” Torrance points out that where and when they can, the volunteer firefighters do cover for him as a duty officer and if qualified, they can also act as incident commanders at emergencies. But he adds these are volunteers and it's unreasonable to call on them to keep doing more than they already do. Furthermore he says the volunteers have jobs and families meaning they have only so much time to devote to fire coverage while at the same time getting their life balance right. Torrance ends his report by asking the new fire board to provide direction that prevents service gaps when he's away from the office.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