By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
It’s been a story told in pieces, back and forth, with language that cuts the issue down the middle.
Soundbites and statements turn to articles, which lead to responses and rhetoric that shovels more into the divide, growing the gap between the two sides of the argument.
Since January, that’s exactly how Oshawa Fire Services, the Oshawa Professional Firefighters Association and the City of Oshawa have addressed the issue that has cast a haze of uncertainty over the city and created questions around the city’s ability to respond to fires.
For eight months, The Oshawa Express has been following along in the aftermath of a deadly fire that killed four people at the start of 2018. Since that time, there has been continuous updates from the union, but silence from the city and management. That was, until July, when Fire Chief Derrick Clark delivered a five-year review of the city’s blueprint for its fire service in the years ahead.
What follows is an indefinite history, update and deep dive into a topic that has become a lightning rod for ongoing issues in the city of Oshawa including employee relations, transparency, regulatory systems, and most concerning, the way this city reacts in the face of utter tragedy.
The OFS Side of the Story
January 8, 2018.
Among his more than 10,000 days on the job with Oshawa Fire Service, Clark says that day was by far the worst of them all.
On that day, it was around 8 o’clock in the morning when a fire erupted at 116 Centre Street North in Oshawa’s downtown. The blaze tore through the lower level of the home at a rapid pace. According to witnesses, the lower floor was quickly consumed as people fled the house.
“I saw a flash of orange in the back door window as well as the northwest windows, not even 10 seconds later the door flies open and people are coming running out yelling ‘fire’ and ‘get out’,” says resident Laura Green, whose backyard abuts the lot of 116 Centre Street. She says she was standing on her back porch when the fire started.
One man was seen rushing in and out of the house. It was 50-year-old Steve Macdonald. He was able to save his pregnant daughter before rushing back in, trying to save the others living in separate units. He never came back out again.
Macdonald was among four victims who perished in the blaze.
The multiple unit home was not registered in the city’s system as a two-unit house, therefore was not inspected for potential fire or building code violations, inspections that would have found the home was without working smoke alarms.
OFS were quickly on scene, but the flames were too large, and too hot for firefighters to push into the upper floors. Early after the fire, questions around the OFS response time to the fire was brought into question. However, Clark notes the response times were in line with industry standards, but even then, it wasn’t enough to save the individuals in the home.
“Those individuals perished before we could even get there, and it’s very difficult to deal with that,” he tells The Oshawa Express.
In the aftermath of the blaze, as media attention continued to increase around the deadly fire. Few details were shared around the cause of the blaze, which initially began in the kitchen. Now, following the conclusion of an investigation by the Ontario Fire Marshal, OFS has laid a slew of charges in connection to the fire for a number of fire code violations and violations to the Fire Prevention and Protection Act.
Clark was hesitant to share further details as the matter heads to court in September.
“At some point in time in the future, the facts will come out,” he says.
However, the eventual outcome of that judicial process is not the only item that has continued to occupy the attention of the OFS.
Soon after the deadly blaze, the Oshawa Professional Firefighters Union released a report that highlighted a serious vulnerability in the city’s downtown. The report states that due to social and economic factors and the age of the buildings in the city’s downtown, the residents in the area are much more vulnerable to dying in a fire.
For that reason, the union called on the city to partner with them in sharing data, statistics and response time information in order to inform a community risk assessment of the city of Oshawa. The union, who appeared before council in April with their request, stated the assessment would be completed by the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) and at no cost to the city. The last time the city completed such an assessment was during the creation of the city’s Fire Master Plan, approved in 2013.
To the surprise of many in the community, OFS declined the union’s request and city staff and council remained mostly mum on the issue, providing little reasoning as to why the idea would be shot down.
It was simply noted that Clark was in the midst of a review of the Fire Master Plan, a scheduled review in the 10-year plan, and it would be released as soon as it was completed.
That review eventually appeared before councillors in July.
Speaking with The Express on Aug. 10, Clark explained the work that went into the review, which shows that for the most part, Oshawa’s fire department is maintaining the standards it needs to in terms of response times and resource levels.
“What I take away from the review is that we’re doing a good job with our response times,” Clark says.
The focus on response times has continued to be a recurring issue for Oshawa’s downtown fire station (Station 1), which serves as the department’s headquarters. In 2013, following the approval of the fire master plan, it was decided that a surplus platoon of firefighters would eventually be moved, along with a truck, to the new Fire Hall 6. The change in deployment model has continued to raise questions for some in the city, including city councillors.
The movement was the continuation of a trend that previously saw OFS trucks deployed from the centre of the city and travelling out to fires and emergencies when they occur, to a model that has trucks deployed across the city and coming into the core to respond when needed.
“They recognized that this city is growing and the deployment model started to shift where it was out and now we come into the core. We spread our resources out and come in,” Clark says, adding that the service is always open to potential changes if need be. “We’re not opposed to looking at our deployment model and working with our senior staff here. We’ve already reached out to our senior staff and the association for input and it’s something we’re currently looking at. If we can redeploy our manpower somehow and bring some staff back to Station 1 then that’s definitely what we’ll do.”
The same was said by OFS deputy chief Steve Barkwell.
“If there is a trend, and there seems be a hole somewhere, obviously we’re going to try and mitigate that as best we can, and so far we haven’t seen those trends,” he says.
During the council meeting in which the document was delivered, councillors were surprised to be handed the 90-page document only minutes before the presentation. It caused a 30-minute delay in order for councillors to play catch-up. Clark says the final report was only completed earlier that day, mostly due to issues with the city’s data systems and aligning the correct information.
“I’ll be the first to admit our reporting system through the (Computer Aided Dispatch), is not the easiest to work with,” Clark says. “We didn’t have a lot of data to start with in terms of charts and graphs.”
However, the issues highlighted a number of areas where the city needed improvement, and now OFS has worked to ensure their data systems can better serve the department moving forward, including the potential addition of further environment and economic data.
“It’ll give us a little more pinpoint information in terms of the demographics of people in the city and their trends and their habits, how we can get our fire safety messages out, where we can spend our time,” Clark says. “We’ll be able to be more transparent with the firefighters and running reports for them and we can break things down by shift, by truck, by hall, by platoon now. We never had access to that before so that’s a huge step forward for us.”
When councillors were able to question the report, the inevitable questions about resources downtown reared their head once again. In particular, the issue of National Fire Protectional Agency (NFPA) standards were raised, and in particular how the department’s response times in terms of depth seem to be slightly below national standards.
OFS “turnout times”, that being the amount of time it takes from the initial call being received to having a crew on route to the scene are on par with industry standards, while the travel times of OFS are in fact above the industry standards. With that noted, the “total response” time is slightly below the industry standard set at 384 seconds (or about six and half minutes). Between 2006 and 2011, Oshawa averaged 434 seconds, a number that dropped to 424 seconds between 2013 and 2017.
Clark points out that the NFPA standard for response times, known in the industry as NFPA 1710, are goals that departments strive to reach in as many areas as possible. The NFPA also sets the standards for gear, equipment and many other aspects of a firefighters job. Clark says many departments won’t reach the 100 per cent compliance.
“You’re going to be hard-pressed to find any municipality outside of the Torontos, the Ottawas, the Windsors, that have 150 fire trucks that can say they can actually meet those standards,” he says.
The document also addressed a number of other aspects of the 2013 plan, providing updates on the creation of a OFS training facility, to which a business case is currently being developed and should be delivered to council in the fall, and also explained that OFS is already considering potential locations north of Columbus for a seventh fire hall.
Despite the delivery of the five-year review, it has done little to quell the unrest with the union, who continues to work, independent of the city and OFS, on the development of the community risk assessment alongside the IAFF.
Peter Dyson, the president of the Oshawa Professional Firefighters Association, says that the review completed by Clark simply doesn’t go far enough to address the growing needs of the city.
“Times have changed since 2013, there’s new buildings, there’s an increased population and (Clark) hasn’t looked at the change and that’s startling to us. The safety of residents does not seem to be paramount, the health and safety of firefighters isn’t there and that’s why we’re doing this report and we’re going to keep doing it,” he says. “We’re looking forward to seeing what the data and the science shows and that’s what we’re going to base our opinions on.”
The Union Side of the Story
The union representing Oshawa’s firefighters bided their time following the tragic events on Jan. 8. Out of respect for the families of those who perished, and to allow the city to heal from one of the worst fires it’s seen in decades.
However, it wasn’t easy for a union that had been warning senior fire officials about the risks in the city’s downtown for some time, concerns that had apparently fallen on deaf ears.
Following the delivery of the IAFF report that highlighted the risks faced by downtown residents in the city, Dyson and his team quickly went to work trying to gather the information they would need in order to inform a complete community risk assessment, despite the fact that the city, and the OFS management had declined to help in any way.
The union was forced to file Freedom of Information requests to gather the proper info, and were forced to go to the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) for info the city didn’t have. There they were met with a price tag reaching into the thousands of dollars.
Despite that, Dyson says they are moving forward with the report, which they hope to deliver later this month or early September.
“It’s taking a while, as I said before, because of the thoroughness and the completeness of our report. I spoke to the IAFF not to long ago and they’re still working on it,” Dyson says. “The problem is, with the amount of time it took us to get the FOIs it delayed our report.”
The FOI system was not the only issue the union faced when trying to gather the data for its report.
Soon after appearing before council in April, Dyson began to hear from the city clerk and the city’s legal department that it was inappropriate for him to appear before council. For that reason, he was told that further delegation request to speak to council would be turned down.
Andrew Browuer, the city clerk, explained to The Express that the issue deals with council’s procedural bylaw, and that any comments from a union member should be dealt with through management.
It’s something Dyson says he continues to fight.
“It’s still concerning for us, it’s still something we’re trying to get a handle and more information on. It’s really concerning that the city clerk has made a decision to not allow us to talk to council,” he says. “The association is committed to public safety, is committed to ensuring that the residents of Oshawa have all the information and council has all the information and we’re going to keep going no matter the roadblocks the city puts up in front of us. We will apply to present to council, we don’t know whether we’ll be able to or not, but I think serious questions need to be asked on who is advising council on whether the association can speak or not. I have grave concerns about us not being able to talk. It’s not good.”
And it’s not just the local union that has taken issue with what’s happening in Oshawa.
Fred LeBlanc, the vice resident of the 13th District of the IAFF, which includes Ontario and Manitoba, says that the community risk assessment the union is trying to create alongside the IAFF is an unbiased report that will provide the science and facts on the best path forward for OFS.
“Our reports are judging and measuring what your current capabilities are, if they’re looking at future capabilities, and we have lots of places where there’s cooperation with the local (union) and administration and the city where they all come together and provide all the data because this is a service that is run through our union so there’s no cost for the municipality,” he says. “There’s nothing voodoo about this from a union perspective in trying to point a report in a certain direction it’s just, here are the facts, and this is what it is.”
The issues faced by the Oshawa union is like nothing he’s seen before.
“We’ve had to use Freedom of Information requests before, but this one just seems to have taken it to a new level for whatever reason. I understand that the fire chief is saying this is my role and my job and the local is saying we’re just trying to help,” LeBlanc says. “It’s not just strictly a union driven document as the fear that’s out there, it’s unfortunate because I think that Oshawa council has missed an opportunity, in my opinion, to maybe take some positive actions when they’re in a position of authority to do so.”
In terms of the union being barred from speaking to council, LeBlanc says he’s never heard of that happening before.
“I would say it in the strongest of terms how disappointed I am in council that they would look to an area of their own workforce and say you know what, we don’t want to hear from you,” he says. “As a local president in Kingston I addressed council there many times, when I was provincial president I went before many municipal councils and I’ve done it a few times in my current role as IAFF representative. I think council is short-changing not only themselves, but the citizens when they fail to hear from all sides.”
It came as a surprise to the union. For Clark it was simply the most transparent thing to do.
Following the delivery of his five-year review, council is now going to decide whether to have the report peer-reviewed by Dillon, the consulting firm behind the city’s fire master plan created in 2013. The review would come with a $44,000 price tag. The vote was slated to be held on Aug. 14, the results of which were not available as of The Oshawa Express press deadline.
“It was just a discussion we had with the management team and we felt it was a good step moving forward then with some of the concerns that were brought forth and maybe some of the discussions that we’ve had with the association as well,” Clark says. “I felt it was a great idea to have the company that develop the master fire plan to peer review the section that we have done and as I’ve been clear with the association and everyone else, it was my responsibility and I took it on myself to deliver the five-year review.”
Along with the review of Clark’s report, Dillon will also be commissioned to create a community risk assessment of the city, the same type of report the union is currently working on with the IAFF.
The Express questioned why the city would choose to pay for the report when the union is currently creating a similar report free of charge.
“I think the simple answer to that is, Dillon did the first master fire plan, and it’s the responsibility of the fire chief to do the five year review. It’s not the responsiblity of the association or the member firefighters to do a review of the master fire plan. That document was approved by council and is a guiding priincple for the City of Oshawa,” Clark says. “To have a labour union dictate a review, is not appropriate in my opinion.”
“I can say right now I’m surprised,” Dyson says. “All indications were that the city was happy with their plan. I’m unsure as to why they need to spend all this money now. We have our report, which is going to be our shortly, so why are we spending money prior to ours being out?”
Clark acknowledges that he will read the report created by the IAFF and the local union, and he hopes to continue to work with the union moving forward. In fact, an additional $4,000 was added to the $40,000 budget for Dillon in order to include the union in the consultation on the assessment.
“That’s one of the things we’re looking at with the peer review is to have that process happen as well, to try and maybe calm the waters a little bit and make some bridges,” he says. “We actually do a lot to meet with the association to hear their concerns and I know sometimes what you hear might be one-sided, but we’re committed to work with the association.”