• Rob Hornberger

Report eyes staffing, morale as fire department looks to future

Sweeping recommendations follow lake mishap

Increasing the number of fire inspectors to keep up with growing demand is among the recommendations to town council in a report on local fire services.

KINGSVILLE — A report commissioned after two senior Kingsville Fire Department officers took leaves of absence earlier this year has made sweeping recommendations to town council on improving staff morale, increasing fire inspections and preparing for future expansion of fire services.

Chief Chuck Parsons and Deputy Chief Jeff Dean went on paid leave in mid-September — one week after the department’s rescue of three American boaters whose disabled craft capsized in Lake Erie went awry. Dean has subsequently returned to his former job.

Deputy Chief John Quennell said the report prepared by Amherstburg Fire Chief Bruce Montone was commissioned as a result of the void left when Parsons and Dean took their leaves — and not the September rescue which saw the department rescue boat capsize.

“So, this was the main intent,” Quennell said. “To make sure the town knew where they were, what they needed to do and what steps did they have to do moving forward.”

The report mentions morale problems, specifically at the north detachment in Cottam, where volunteer firefighters felt they were treated as “second-class citizens.”

“Our research of other amalgamated communities and fire departments shows that many have successfully addressed such issues by promoting a “One Fire Department” approach, joint activities, and pro-active recognition and reward of achievements,” Montone wrote.

Quennell said he believes any “tension” between fire stations was more an issue of friendly rivalry.

Kingsville CAO John Norton has met with administrative staff and volunteer firefighters and the issue of morale was discussed.

“I think the chief’s job is to work at that, with more cross-training, more events together —unfortunately COVID had separated people,” he said.

“But I agree with the chief’s comments about friendly competition as well, but of course we need them to work together and … if we have a large-scale disaster they are coming together as a single fire department because they are one department.”

The department currently has five full-time staff — a fire chief, deputy, fire training officer, fire prevention officer and an administrative assistant — as well as 51 volunteer firefighters.

Norton said there are other steps the town and fire department can take to improve the working conditions of volunteer firefighters, like better communications, new equipment and opening up dialogue with spouses and partners of firefighters dealing with stress.

“You’re making five, six, eight thousand dollars in a year; you’re putting your life on the line. We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude."

The report also recommends that town employees who are volunteer firefighters be allowed to leave work to answer fire calls and that private employers be encouraged to do the same.

Norton said the town could also look at issues like compensation and benefits.

“You’re making five, six, eight thousand dollars in a year; you’re putting your life on the line. We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

“What it would cost to replace them with a full-time professional force, we couldn’t afford it. We need to be thankful at many levels,” Norton said.

The report also dealt with fire inspections. The town currently has one fire inspector and a fire-training officer who is often tasked to do fire inspections.

Norton admitted the town is understaffed and not just in the area of fire inspectors. He said environmental services, water distribution, even snow removal, are also understaffed.

Added to the responsibilities of the fire inspector is the need to inspect bunkhouses at local greenhouses.

“When it gets to a certain point we need to hire for sure another fire inspector,” Norton said.

The department has recently made a part-time administrative officer full-time, which will make scheduling of fire inspections more efficient.

Norton said the report underscores the need to match a growing Kingsville with the appropriate level of fire services.

“Over the next year or two we need that risk assessment and fire master plans so we know … what’s the fire service is going to look like in 10 years in 2030. You talk about having two stations, maybe we’re going to have three stations. Those types of questions need to be determined in the future.”

The report also addressed last September’s marine rescue.

The fire department sent a rescue boat with two firefighters aboard to help three Americans whose boat was adrift in Lake Erie off Kingsville. During the rescue the fire department boat capsized. A third firefighter waded into Lake Erie and pulled ashore one of the American boaters.

In an account of the rescue on Parsons’ Facebook page, he said the two firefighters “both safely navigated back to shore on our overturned vessel.”

Waves pushed the two remaining Americans against the rocky shoreline where they were pulled to safety. The firefighters and three Ohio boaters were sent to hospital, treated for mild hypothermia and released.

“The impacts on the Kingsville Fire Department have been sobering and have included amongst some of its members, anxiety, sadness, anger and remorse,” the report said.

“The Chief Administrative Officer … was inundated with expressions of concern from firefighters, officers and some family members. The Human Resources Manager also received calls, emails and met with some staff.”

The report dealt extensively with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

It recommended the department strengthen its participation in the Essex County First Responder Peer Support Coalition, which deals with PSTD, increased training in peer support and the creation of “awareness sessions” with firefighters and their spouses and partners.

Quennell said working with the spouses and partners is key, especially in volunteer fire departments. He said volunteer firefighters — unlike full-time firefighters — often don’t notice when a colleague is under stress.

Volunteer firefighters “are not like the full-time world where they spend 24 hours together … where you get to see mood swings,” Quennell said.

“This is where the spouse or the significant other comes in … we want the spouses in the family to know if they need assistance, it’s OK.”

Quennell said the lake mishap also pointed out the need for better communications among other rescue groups, like the OPP and coast guard, and within the command structure of the fire department itself.

Quennell and Norton said Kingsville residents can remain confident in their fire service.

“I strongly believe that their fire service is second to none in the county and the commitment of the firefighters and officers they have here, there are none better,” Quennell said.

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