Tension between Brownsburg-Chatham council and the town’s firefighters was high at the November 6 council meeting, held at the Louis-Renaud Community Centre in St-Philippe.
Claiming budget restraints, council has decided to terminate seven new volunteer firefighters who had recently joined the department. Their training was nearly complete and they were to officially begin their duties on Monday, November 5.
Karl Boivin, President of the Brownsburg-Chatham Firefighters Association, was joined at the council meeting by about 30 members of the department along with firefighters from Grenville and Lachute who came along to show their support.
Boivin said the seven recruits were hired in June and sent for training through the École nationale des pompiers du Québec—the provincial firefighter training school. But on Friday, November 3, he says he was notified in a letter from municipal Director General Hervé Rivet that the new hires would be terminated.
There were numerous exchanges between Boivin and Rivet during the two question periods of the meeting.
“We are municipal employees,” Boivin said, complaining about the way in which the termination notice was delivered. He told council that it needs to spend some time reflecting about how it treats firefighters.
“It’s not easy to decide,” Rivet emphasized to Boivin. He added that it was a difficult decision to make, based on cost and needs.
Boivin responded, saying, “They sacrifice for very little money,” and angrily told council to, “Do your homework” into how firefighting operates.
After council made its decision, Boivin asked council about how it feels to deny firefighters the opportunity to serve. He also noted how no councillors asked questions or made comments before the motion was adopted.
According to Boivin, the letter from Rivet said the seven terminated firefighters would be placed on a list for possible recall at a later date. But Boivin said the list does not exist.
Five other firefighters, who were already part of the Brownsburg-Chatham department, were also terminated. Boivin said their reasons for leaving included retirement and an inability to be available to respond to calls.
The next step for the firefighters association, Boivin said, will be discussions with a lawyer and another meeting with the Director General.
Once council had made its decision, Boivin left the community centre and the group of firefighters followed. There were congratulatory handshakes and back slaps out in the parking lot as the group made its way towards the adjacent fire station.
After the meeting ended, Rivet again emphasized the reason for terminating the new firefighters was strictly financial and that funds instead need to be allocated to ensuring Brownsburg-Chatham meets the minimum firefighting standards set by the Québec government. The firefighting budget for Brownsburg-Chatham in 2018 was $550,000. A recent public communiqué from the firefighter’s association notes that in the past, the town received a provincial grant to cover 80 per cent of the cost of training the new firefighters.
Mayor Catherine Trickey said there was a risk of losing the new hires to full-time departments in larger centres soon after they began their service in Brownsburg-Chatham.
“We knew we will not keep them,” she said.
The mayor explained that the town had 35 firefighters before the hiring. She noted the five others who were dismissed were inactive members and that it creates a false sense of security for citizens when even though there are technically firefighters available to respond to a call, not enough of them will show up when a call occurs.
The firefighter terminations in Brownsburg-Chatham come at a crucial time as firefighting services in the area are being reviewed.
In May, 2018, Brownsburg-Chatham, Lachute, and St-André-d’Argenteuil began a joint $25,000 study to examine how fire department resources are allocated, how firefighters are retained and recruited, and how to ensure efficient response times throughout the three municipalities. Half of the study was paid for by the Québec government and the rest covered equally by each municipality.
The study is seen by some as a precursor to a single fire department for the three municipalities. Karl Boivin said phase one of the study is now complete and municipal officials and firefighters were given a presentation about the progress. Boivin complained that municipal councillors were given a completely different presentation than the firefighters. He said he was told that firefighters were not required to have full knowledge about the future of the departments they serve on.
Mayor Trickey said a single fire department for the three municipalities is a possibility but the idea still needs further examination.
“We’re looking into it and what’s in it for everybody,” she said.
Trouble has been brewing between the firefighters association and the Brownsburg-Chatham municipality for a while. A recent news release from the association highlights several concerns the association has about how the department is being managed, in addition to objecting to the terminations of the new recruits. The association claims the municipality is diminishing the confidence citizens have in their fire department to provide fast and reliable service.