Even as city council voted tonight on a motion intended to appease the association representing local firefighters, some councillors are asking for more information on how relations between administration and the union was so ‘terribly mishandled’.
Councillors spent almost an hour and a half of tonight’s meeting of council to ask questions and make comments on a report by Al Horsman, chief administrative officer of the city, asking for council’s blessing that a comprehensive risk assessment of fire services be completed.
City staff’s original intention was to have the assessment conducted at the completion of the Fire Services Realignment Plan, expected to conclude sometime in 2018.
The Sault Ste. Marie Professional Fire Fighters Association—the union representing the city’s firefighters—has been invited to participate in drafting up the Request for Proposal (RFP) for the assessment.
The assessment process, from drafting the RFP to putting it out to tender and eventually having it completed, will take about six months, estimates Horsman.
Matthew Shoemaker, councillor for Ward 3, said realigning of the city’s fire services—a process which began in October 2015—has been ‘a total administrative disaster’ and ‘terribly mishandled’.
The Fire Services Realignment Plan, introduced by fire chief Mike Figliola on Oct. 27, 2015, was intended to cut 20 firefighter positions over three years by attrition, while hiring Emergency Medical Services (EMS) staff, EMS supervisors, among other positions.
Additionally, the complement of firefighter on each truck was reduced from four to three and on-duty staffing was reduced from 17 to 13 at any one time.
Earlier in tonight’s meeting, councillors heard of the positive outcomes realized on the EMS side as a result of the realignment, including reduced instances of no ambulance being available and quicker response times.
“I still believe, personally, that realigning fire services to provide better EMS for the community and adjust staffing levels to reflect modern call numbers was the right move,” said Shoemaker.
But he added, “every step taken since then has been mishandled.”
In his report to council, Horsman accepts some blame on behalf of management for the breakdown in relations.
“We have been looking internally at a number of policies and processes that came into question as a result of everything that have been going on with the fire (services),” said Horsman.
During the public portion of tonight’s meeting, all questions by councillors regarding fire services were handled by Horsman—Figliola was present but was not addressed directly and did not speak to council.
Ward 1 councillor Steve Butland said the implementation of the Fire Services Realignment Plan was 'an unmitigated mess'.
"Everyone is to blame, even ourselves," Butland said.
He recounted a chat he said he had with Horsman a few weeks ago, in which he was told of a new strategy to improve relations with the union.
“The new strategy was to meet the union without the chief,” said Butland.
Horsman confirmed in the two meetings recently held between the union and management, Figliola was not present.
“The meetings were done with the HR director, myself and (union) executive,” said Horsman.
Figliola will be at the table in future meetings, Horsman said.
“The chief for the fire services division will have some input to it, but we were trying to find some common ground to go forward,” he said.
In the meantime, said Horsman, there is a freeze on the realignment plan—no further hirings will be conducted and no equipment purchases for fire services will be made.
In addition, no current firefighting assets—including the fan boat used for water rescues—will be sold or otherwise be taken out of service, said Horsman.
The freeze will be lifted at the completion of the comprehensive risk assessment, the upcoming report by the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM) and a report by the Fire Underwriters Survey.
The Fire Underwriters Survey is an organization which assesses the firefighting capability of a municipality and administers a rating which has an impact on insurance rates for residents, businesses and institutions in that community.
The last time the city was assessed by the Fire Underwriters Survey was in 1989.
The report from the OFMEM is expected within the next few weeks and the Fire Underwriters Survey’s assessment is expected to commence in May.
Ross Romano, councillor for Ward 6, suggested 17 firefighters on duty at any one time may have been too many, but current staffing levels of 13 may be too low and said council—who set staffing levels for fire services—could perhaps increase the number.
A staffing level of 15, said Romano, could offer two trucks manned with three firefighters, two trucks of four fighters and a communications officer.
Immediately prior to the October 2015 realignment plan, the city’s complement of frontline firefighters was 88, as a result of retirements that number has dropped to 76 as of Mar. 31, 2017.
Shoemaker and Butland penned a letter to Mayor Christian Provenzano on March 31, asking for clarification surrounding the hiring of one or more Fire Eductation Officers and an email chain between fire chief Mike Figliola and Peter Niro, director of Human Resources for the city of Sault Ste. Marie.
Questions posed in the letter include: why hire two officers as opposed to one? What was the starting salary, $103,000 or $110,000? Why was our Human Resources department not more integrally involved?
The original intention, said Shoemaker, was to have the concerns within the letter addressed at tonight’s meeting of city council, but Provenzano said it will be brought up in two weeks during the Apr. 24 meeting.
During tonight’s meeting, Butland said the city has to stick together and get the union on side.
“We have many issues to iron out and it isn’t going to be easy,” he said.