After almost four months on the job, Champlain Township’s Director of Fire Services Ghislain Pigeon is happy to be back home and looking forward to building upon the volunteer fire department’s already strong foundation.

“I’m big on building strong foundations,” says Pigeon, noting the Champlain Fire Department’s solid base of experienced personnel and excellent training facilities. “Our foundation here is good, but there are things which need to change.”

One of the top priorities for Champlain’s Director of Fire Services will be to help negotiate a new contract with the volunteer firefighters’ union. Champlain Township firefighters voted in August of 2020 to join the United Steelworkers (USW) in order to improve their working conditions.

“We’ve started negotiations  and they are going well.” Pigeon commented. “The discussions are great and I expect we will have a collective agreement in place within a few months.”

Pigeon does not anticipate any issues in working with a unionized department, a situation he describes as “a bit different in a volunteer fire department, but not uncommon.”

Health and safety of firefighters is another issue strongly on Pigeon’s radar.

“In a fire department we are in such a hazardous occupation that everything comes down to health and safety. Making sure our people are well trained, they have the right equipment, the right vehicles, and that the facilities and areas they work in are safe.”

Part of the solution will be examining all of the Champlain Fire Department’s documentation, policies and guidelines. Equipment, vehicles and training procedures will also be studied to ensure all is up to par.

One of the goals will be to ensure that the Vankleek Hill and L’Orignal fire stations are aligned in their operations. To that end, the department is looking to develop a Master Fire Plan to provide future direction for the township’s two fire stations.

“(We want) to give council a plan on the next five to 10 years and to look back to see what we have been doing over the past five years.” Pigeon explains. “Then we want to look forward to the next 10 years to see what needs to be done.”

Pigeon says he will call on his experience with the Nation fire department, where he served as Chief from January 1999 until December 2014 – in parallel to his career with the Hawkesbury department.

“It was a great experience,” says Pigeon of his time working for the Nation’s fire department. “We managed to really change the fire department.”

Pigeon, who grew up in the region and attended Hawkesbury District High School, began his career in 1980, when he joined the Hawkesbury Fire Department as a volunteer firefighter. He became a full-time firefighter in 1985, also serving as the department’s Fire Prevention Officer. He accepted the part-time position of Fire Coordinator for The Nation and became Chief of the Hawkesbury Fire Department in 2001, serving in that position until August of 2015. Prior to returning to the region to head the Champlain department last December, Pigeon spent five years as the Fire Chief in Brockville, Ontario.

One of the biggest strengths Pigeon sees in the Champlain department is the current personnel. He points out that at a time when departments across Ontario are having trouble finding and retaining firefighters, the township’s firefighting crews have remained comparatively stable.

“We have both fire stations fully staffed with 25 firefighters and they have a list of people who want to join,” Pigeon says. “Here it is very stable and we have great, great people.”

“A fire department is really the people who are in it – especially with a volunteer department like Champlain.”

One area Pigeon would like to see improved is coordination between the two fire stations in Vankleek Hill and L’Orignal.

“Champlain has been in existence for 22 years and there are still (some issues caused by the amalgamation), Pigeon says. “One of the things I’m planning to do is to integrate the two stations into one – they will continue to have two stations, but it’s one fire department – that has to become the standard.”

“We want everything to be standardized, everything to be done exactly the same way, whether it’s in L’Orignal or Vankleek Hill.”

Pigeon also feels the Champlain firefighters decision to unionize will actually help the standardization process.

“One of the things that will come out of a union is you’ll have a workforce that is more united. The union is going to be one of the tools which is going to help secure that foundation.”

Although he enjoyed his time living in Brockville, Pigeon is excited to be back in his hometown.

“I see lots of people – like yourself – coming back to the area where I was raised,” he says. “My wife loves being here.”

“It’s great to be back.”