Fire department moves to 24/7 staffing model

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Salt Spring Fire Rescue will transition to a 24-hour staffing model at Ganges Fire Hall in 2021 as a result of an arbitrator’s decision on the union contract.

The fire department’s unionized career members have been working without a contract since Jan. 1, 2017. Negotiations conducted between the Greater Victoria Labour Relations Association on behalf of the Salt Spring Fire Protection District and International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4467 started in 2019. With substantive issues unresolved in that process, the two sides employed a mediator and then agreed to arbitration when that too proved unsuccessful. 

Arbitrator Judi Korbin issued her decision last week. 

“The terms of past collective agreements have been contentious for many in our community,” said fire board chair Per Svendsen in a news statement. “On outstanding matters put to the arbitrator, both the GVLRA and Local 4467 argued their case and Ms. Judi Korbin arrived at her decisions. Neither party was awarded every argument and it is my experience that if both sides are somewhat disappointed, it is likely the outcome was fair, balanced and the best that could have been achieved in the circumstances.”

“It’s been a very long process of negotiation, mediation and arbitration with a host of different SSIFPD boards and employer representatives,” said Mitchell Sherrin, acting union local president. “Throughout the bargaining process, we appreciate that negotiations have been professional and respectful.”

The renewed collective agreement will be for a six-year term ending Dec. 31, 2023. Union staff wages will be based on the determined prevailing rates for 2017 through 2019. Starting in 2020, general wage rates will be at 100 per cent of the prevailing rate of comparable fire departments within the Capital Regional District.

The pay increase was expected by the board as firefighter union contracts are generally set to the same rates around the province.

“The district anticipated paying retroactive pay and the estimated liability for 2017 through 2019 has been accrued on financial statements,” Svendsen reported.  

As part of the new contract, unionized career staff apart from the assistant chief will move into a four-platoon system starting on Jan. 2 to offer staffing coverage around the clock. At least two full-time firefighters will be on shift at the main hall 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They will still be supplemented by paid-on-call firefighters for emergency incidents.

The staffing model shift also means the fire board must hire two new career officers as currently there are six in addition to Assistant Chief Jamie Holmes. District administrator Andrew Peat said there is a two-year phase-in period to accomplish the hiring, and until then the two vacant staff positions can be filled by paid-on-call members. Peat said the change won’t impact the budget much in 2021 because the cost of paying the two POCs will be balanced out by no longer having to pay the premium charge for an overnight duty officer.

Both employer and employees have promoted the change as a positive outcome in regard to fire operations.

“We can now roll out our emergency service team in minutes after a call in the evening. The previous collective agreement provided for a duty officer working off-site, which could delay response times. Improved response times will mean improved service and should reduce insurance risk,” Svendsen said. 

“Moving to a 24/7 staffing model is a big win for the community,” Sherrin agreed. “Islanders should see improved evening emergency responses. And our crews will also benefit from enhanced safety by having a dedicated officer and fire-apparatus operator responding to every incident.”

Sherrin explained that having to rely on the voluntary response of paid-on-call members for after-hours incidents posed safety concerns for career members. 

“We have a cadre of very well-trained and dedicated POC firefighters. But we have a system where you never know how many POCs will come to an incident. And on some calls the duty officer might respond alone,” said Sherrin. “It’s just the nature of the system.” 

The arbitrator’s full award document has not yet been made public. It will be included with the agenda package for the next fire board meeting, scheduled for Dec. 14.

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