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Additional firepower: City hiring five new staff for Oshawa Fire Services

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

Oshawa firefighters recently battled a blaze at a tire store on Ritson Road South. Based on recommendations from a consultant, the city is hiring three new firefighters, creating an assistant deputy chief position, and filling the long vacated role of communication officer.

Council received an update from Dillon Consulting on the fire master plan and community risk assessment last month.

The company was selected earlier this year to update the city’s plan, first adopted in 2013.

That document was originally conceived to last 10 years through 2023, but after a five-year review by Fire Chief Derrick Clark last year, it was decided it needed to be updated.

Unforeseen growth was pegged as one of the reasons for the need for a revamped plan.

Dillon Consulting was also involved in the preparation of the 2013 plan.

The consultant originally told council it would provide its preliminary findings in September, but the report never came.

In late-October, Dillon informed the city the scope of the project had increased and it needed more money.

The consultant listed six additional tasks which resulted in a need for an additional $27,000, a request granted by council.

Ward 2 city and regional councillor Tito-Dante Marimpietri voiced some frustration with how the project was coming together.

Originally, Dillon had estimated it would present its draft report in January 2020, but it’s been delayed until March.

Marimpietri said council was “very clear” with the schedule it wanted to see earlier this year.

“It’s no offense to you as a consultant…but I don’t know why it’s taking so long,” he said.

Steve Thurlow, project lead for Dillon Consulting, said there are a number of reasons the project’s schedule has been extended.

He noted the summer months offer some challenges for lining up meeting times between his company and city staff.

In addition, he noted the Oshawa Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA) had requested additional meetings during the fall.

Dillon and OPFFA officials met once in late-September, and again in October.

OPFFA president Peter Dyson told The Oshawa Express he was “disappointed” with how Dillon’s report depicted the meetings between the two sides.

Dyson said he doesn’t feel the association was treated as a “key stakeholder” by the consultant.

He also criticized Dillon for not having its preliminary findings ready by September.

“Dillon has missed multiple deadlines and multiple targets,” he said.

However, Dyson said the union agreed with two recommendations regarding staffing, which were ultimately approved by council.

Oshawa Fire Service currently has four platoons, three of which have 40 firefighters and one with 41.

According to Dillon, this discrepancy is

causing difficulties for the service to maintain its minimum standard of having 33 firefighters on duty at all times.

Thurlow said often firefighters have to work overtime to maintain this standard.

According to a recent audit of the city’s finances by MNP LLP., the amount of overtime worked by city employees jumped 47 per cent between 2016 and 2019.

In 2016, the city paid out $1.532 million for 28,339 hours of overtime, with it estimated to increase to $2.251 million for 40,830 hours in 2019.

The audit revealed the majority of overtime is attributed to the fire department.

There was plenty of debate before council supported hiring the new firefighters, with attempts made to defer or table the matter to a later date.

Ward 5 city and regional councillor Brian Nicholson brought up the fact he tried to get the city to hire four new firefighters during last year’s budget, but it was defeated.

He noted the city had paid almost $750,000 in overtime costs for fire staff this year.

“You’re never going to get that number down until we increase the number of frontline staff,” Nicholson said. “If you continue

to stretch the elastic band until it breaks, it’s going to happen, and you shouldn’t do that.”

Dillon estimated it would cost $265,282 in salary and benefits to hire the three new firefighters.

Council also supported the creation of a new assistant deputy chief position.

Thurlow said there are currently three management positions, Chief Clark and two deputy chiefs, overseeing nearly 180 unionized staff.

He claims management are currently “working day-to-day” with little ability to focus on the long-term strategic planning for the fire service.

Thurlow believes this cannot continue.

“There is going to be a number of different areas where in our view there needs to be a stronger management presence to ensure the municipality’s due diligence is being achieved,” he said.

Ward 2 city councillor Jane Hurst wondered what the responsibilities of an assistant deputy would be.

Thurlow said those duties “would change daily.”

Nicholson questioned the quickness with which council decided to create a new position.

He called for city staff to provide a “comprehensive review” of Dillon’s suggestion.

“We don’t even have a job description. This isn’t even coming from our staff, it’s coming from a consultant. I’ve never seen it done before,” he said.

Hurst said with three managers overseeing 180 unionized staff, she supported the position of assistant chief “strictly on numbers.”

“I just think it’s a wise way to move forward,” she said.

Ward 4 city and regional councillor Rick Kerr said in order to have an effective fire service, management must be ahead of the curve.

“That’s clearly what we’ve heard from the consultant,” he said.

Yet Marimpietri said he “didn’t believe in the position.”

“I’m just not comfortable with that position for what we are trying to do with it,” he said.

It is estimated the cost of hiring an assistant deputy chief will be $176,952 for wages and benefits.

The last staffing recommendation from Dillon was to fill the long vacant communications officer position.

The role, which provides oversight of the Oshawa Fire Service’s communications division, has been vacant for almost a decade since 2010.

Thurlow said there are occasions when firefighters are having to fill in with this department as well.

While this is a historical practice, he notes it is difficult for firefighters to maintain the requirements of a communications position when they don’t do it very often.

Also, because the city handles dispatch for other Durham Region municipalities, the importance of the communications officer position is even greater.

Dyson said the OPFFA is “100 per cent” behind filling that role, as it is something they’ve advocated for. The estimated cost for filling the position is $156,152 for salary and benefits. While councillors had many more questions regarding the master plan, Thurlow constantly mentioned their report was of preliminary findings and they’d dive in deeper over the next few months.