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BEHIND THE SCENES: City takes steps to extinguish tension over fire hall closures

OrilliaMatters reporter Greg McGrath-Goudie takes us behind the scenes

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These interviews are designed to help you better understand how our community-based reporters gather the information that lands in your local news feed. You can find more Behind the Scenes from reporter across Ontario here

Today's spotlight is on OrilliaMatters' Greg McGrath-Goudie whose story 'City takes steps to extinguish tension over fire hall closures' was published on September 25, 2023.

Here's the original story if you need to catch up:

City officials have taken steps to defuse the rising tensions around ongoing staffing issues that sparked recent closures of one of Orillia's two fire stations.

Earlier this month, CAO Gayle Jackson authorized the fire department to hire three temporary firefighters and bring on 10 additional volunteer firefighters, and city council approved a $150,000 budget adjustment to allow additional overtime, at the discretion of the fire chief, at Monday’s council meeting.

Mayor Don McIsaac, city councillors and senior city staff spent three-and-a-half hours discussing the matter (in addition to other issues) in closed session at the meeting. Despite that lengthy discussion out of the public eye, neither the mayor nor any councillors made public comments before voting on the issue.

The move follows repeated Fire Station 2 (on Commerce Road) closures that have taken place since early August, when the city reduced overtime for the fire department, causing fire staff to respond solely from Fire Station 1 amid staffing shortages. Fire Station 1 is located on Gill Street, just off the Highway 12 bypass.

Over the past several weeks, members of the Orillia Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA) raised the alarm about the overtime reduction, saying the city has “jeopardized” public safety by extending response times for north and west Orillia when responding solely from Fire Station 1.

OPFFA officials have stated there are firefighters ready and willing to fill in on an overtime basis when there are staffing shortages due to illness or disability to keep both stations open.

After weeks of radio silence from city staff on the overtime reduction, city council approved $100,000 in funding for a full review of Orillia fire services at its Monday council meeting, as well as a redirection of $150,000 within the fire service’s budget to allow for additional overtime at the fire chief’s discretion.

The comprehensive review will include an evaluation of the levels of service within the fire department, the number of firefighters in the service, station locations, benchmarking, and performance metrics.

Jackson authorized hiring the temporary firefighters and expanding the volunteer firefighter complement from 20 to 30 volunteers on Sept. 15. However, that was only made public Monday.

OPFFA president Brett Eeles confirmed that, as of Sept. 25, one temporary firefighter had begun their service with the Orillia fire department.

Eeles said it is "good to see" the increase to staffing levels at Orillia Fire. 

"In my opinion, this should never have happened," he told OrilliaMatters. "(The) fire station should always be open and we'll continue pushing until it is open 24/7."

Orillia Fire currently employs 40 full-time firefighters, divided into four platoons of 10, each of which is scheduled for 91 24-hour shifts per year. The 24-hour shift model was first implemented locally in December 2018.

Over the past several years, overtime expenses have climbed dramatically for Orillia Fire, rising from $111,400 in 2018 to $564,000 in 2022. For 2023, $271,609 has been spent on overtime as of Sept. 6, noted a city staff report.

WSIB-related absences – including short- and long-term disability – have ranged between 861 days in 2020 and 1,370 days in 2022, with 745 days so far in 2023, as of Sept. 6.

Sick leave has ranged between 365 days in 2018 to 518 days in 2021. The report did not include data for sick leave in 2023.

Currently, a first-class firefighter makes a salary of $108,259 per year, while a fire captain makes $125,580 per year.

For 2023, Orillia Fire’s operating budget is $7.99 million.