Reforms in the crossfire

By Daniel Kitts

The need for reforms, suggested in a $56,000 study conducted last year, was highlighted by two fires in the same apartment complex on Metcalfe Street within seven months.

An inspection after the second fire on March 12 showed the complex, located at 285-289 Metcalfe, lacked several pieces of fire equipment required for a building of its kind under Ontario’s retrofit regulations, introduced in 1992.

There is no record of an inspection after the first fire on Aug. 20.

The retrofit regulations were meant to bring fire equipment in pre-1975 buildings up to 1990s standards.

Ottawa fire chief Gary Richardson says the second fire served as a wake-up call to his department.

“We realized we were doing everything we wanted to do in the past, and it didn’t work,” he says.

As a result of the Metcalfe incident, he added, Ottawa fire inspectors will be following up on all 104 buildings with outstanding retrofit audits in the next six to eight weeks.

Richardson says he hopes to have longer-term action, based on the report by Ekos Research Associates, completely implemented by the end of 2000.

One immediate effect of the report will be the computerization of the fire prevention bureau within the next two months.

Files will be tracked and inspectors will be automatically notified when a building is due for inspection.

The report makes another 19 recommendations, including:

• improvement to public and media education programs;

• standardizing and improving home safety audits;

• more inspection training for firefighters;

• developing more effective methods to measure landlord compliance.

But Richardson admits that some of the proposals touch on collective bargaining issues — and that could be a problem.

Bill Cole, president of the Ottawa Firefighters Association, says “corrosive” management practices during recent labour negotiations have eroded good will between the city and fire staff.

If the situation deteriorates badly enough, he says, it will be difficult for management and staff to communicate on any issue, even proposals they both generally agree on.

Apart from that, Cole says support for the report among fire staff will depend on how the recommendations, which he says are vague, will be implemented.

For example, if the proposal for training firefighters in inspection techniques simply means more responsibility for staff, he will have trouble supporting it.

Cole argues fire services are already spread too thin, pointing out that in the past 10 years, the fire department has cut 60 firefighting positions.

In about the same period, fire-related calls have jumped from 10,000 to 12,000 calls a year to about 25,000 calls a year.

Cole says if the proposals mean stretching fire staff even thinner, the association may fight their implementation.

“Quite frankly, the department has never really kept up, from a resources base, on all the things that it’s now getting into,” he says.

Cole says Ottawa fire services is taking on so many new responsibilities in the areas of prevention, medical aid and rescue, that management has to try harder to get more money from the city.

“This fire chief (Richardson), in particular, seems to be so enthusiastic to get into new things that it’s a bit like the flight of a deflating balloon: you really can’t trace where we’re going next,” he says.

Richardson says he has no intention of asking the city for more money.

And even if he did, he likely wouldn’t get it.

Somerset City Coun. Elisabeth Arnold says she doesn’t expect more funding for the fire department, pointing out that its budget is still one of the largest of all city services.

She says she has no plans to push for any increase for the fire fighting budget.