A northern Ontario municipality's attempt to boost its roster of fire truck drivers is being stymied by a backlog of road tests, and officials are calling on the province to increase capacity in the north.
The volunteer-run fire department in the municipality of Central Manitoulin is comprised of 38 people, and 12 of them have the licence needed to drive the truck.
They are getting by - for now - with that number, but really need more available drivers, said Phil Gosse, fire chief of the Central Manitoulin Volunteer Fire Department.
"The response time is still the same, that hasn't hurt, it's just that we are a big township," he said. "People don't always work in the area, so it is tight."
Six more firefighters from the fire department are trying to obtain a class D licence with a Z air brake endorsement in order to be able to operate a fire truck, including Gosse. But, as it stands, he said there’s a backlog of months to book a test.
"We can't get a drive test in until the end of April (2022), and now they're saying May and June, so that's too long," he said, noting the months-long delay means firefighters who have done training courses to operate trucks don't have the training as fresh in their minds.
"In a perfect world, everybody would have the licence, but again, you know, we're a volunteer fire department."
Central Manitoulin Mayor Richard Stephens said the municipality is hoping to get either additional training facilities or additional road-test times set aside so more fire team members can get their licences.
Gosse said his fire department doesn’t want “special treatment,” but because it offers an essential service, the department would like to get drive tests completed “in a timely manner.”
Michael Mantha, the member of provincial parliament for Algoma-Manitoulin, raised the ongoing backlog issue at the legislature this week. Waiting five to six months to get additional volunteer firefighters certified to drive a fire truck “is just not acceptable,” he said.
“Now, they do have individuals right now, the service is in place, however, we're dealing with a volunteer fire department, and not every instance or not every individual is always readily available and that creates a challenge. It also raises security concerns,” he said in an interview.
Mantha said he’s also heard from other constituents who are struggling to secure tests for G2 and G licences in a timely fashion amid the pandemic, but he stressed it’s “not a new issue.”
“In northern Ontario, this issue has been one that has been compounded with the COVID pandemic. However, it's an issue that has been long-standing throughout northern Ontario in a variety of the communities,” he added.
It's especially pressing since so many people in the north of the province rely on vehicles to get around, said Mantha, as many communities do not have transit systems or the availability of a taxi or any other means of transportation.
“If they can't access their vehicle, get to work, get to the arena, get to a doctor's appointment, go do their groceries, get in for a medical appointment, we all suffer," he said.
"Our economy suffers or services suffer and individual households suffer."
A spokesperson for Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney blamed the lack of road test capacity in the north on the previous Liberal government.
Jordanna Colwill said the province is investing more than $16 million to increase road testing capacity at all DriveTest centres across the province and hire 251 additional driving examiners.
By the end of the fall, she said 19 of those examiners will be deployed to centres located across northern Ontario, which is expected to increase testing capacity in the region by approximately 150 per cent.
Mantha noted that new centres have been set up in southern Ontario, but the north is only getting new examiners, which he said won't even make a dent.
The ministry has been working closely with local fire departments to ensure they have access to testing as soon as possible, Colwill said.
"We know there is still a lot of work to do," Colwill said in a statement.
"More appointments will be uploaded to the system, but solving this long-standing issue will take time and we appreciate the public’s patience."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Noushin Ziafati, The Canadian Press