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Report in on the state of Essex Fire & Rescue Services


by Sylene Argent


Essex’s CAO Donna Hunter provided Council and members of the public with the highlights of the Executive Summary regarding the Workplace Assessment of Essex Fire & Rescue on Monday evening.

Council received the report and approved the included 14 recommendations.

The Workplace Assessment was conducted as a result of an anonymous complaint that alleged Essex Fire & Rescue Services has a “poisonous work environment.” The anonymous letter was sent to Hunter, members of Council, the Town’s HR department, and the Office of the Fire Marshall on October 31, 2017.

The letter began and alleged: “I am writing on behalf of the members with Essex Fire & Rescue service due to grave concerns your members have due to the poisoned work environment that has been created over the past few years as a result of poor leadership and poor decisions made by Town administration.”


According to the report to Council, the anonymous letter alleged there were health and safety issues in the workplace due to promotion of officers lacking experience, knowledge, and training. It also claimed equipment and trucks were being purchased “blindly” and that the self-contained breathing apparatuses fog up inside burning buildings.


Process


As part of the Town’ Respectful Workplace Policy, complaints of a “poisonous work environment” must be investigated, Hunter said. As the issue was large, a third-party firm was obtained the look into the issue.


On December 5, the services of Jan Parnega of Shearer Parnega LLP was retained as an independent workplace investigator to conduct a confidential workplace assessment to determine if a “poisonous work environment” did indeed exist within Essex’s Fire Department.


Initially, Hunter explained, the assessment focused on Station #1 in Essex Centre as the complaint made indirect reference to this station. It was then expanded to Stations #2 and #3, when it became evident some of the concerns may be prevalent beyond Station #1, the report to Council notes.


The assessment commenced on November 23 with confidential interviews held with each member of Station #1 over a three-day period. Interviews with members of Station #2 and Station #3 followed.


“The positive is that 100 percent of firefighters were interviewed,” Hunter said. There are 65 personnel involved with Essex Fire & Rescue Services, including five administrative staff members.


“In keeping with the general requirements of a workplace assessment and ‘confidentiality’ section of the Town’s Respectful Workplace Policy, each individual interviewed was advised that they were required to keep the facts and content of the interview confidential and, to this end, were required to sign a confidentiality statement,” the report notes.


The final form of the “Consultant’s Confidential Report-Workplace Assessment of Essex Fire & Rescue Service” was received on March 5. The first draft of the document was around 270 pages in length.


In her report, Hunter explains “It is important to note that the Report [Consultant’s Confidential Report-Workplace Assessment of Essex Fire & Rescue Services] received from the consultant will not be made available to the public on the basis that the report is related to labour relations and employment at the Town.”


She later said she would do everything in her power to ensure the document is not made public as it relates to labour relations.


The report noted that based on the legal opinion of Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP provided on March 1, 2018, the report meets the test for exclusion from disclosure under the Municipal Freedom and Protection of Privacy Act.


Hunter noted that she, the Fire Chief, and the Director of Community Services conducted the initial review with the document. Essex Fire & Rescue Services was recently moved into the Community Services Department.


Consultant’s findings


According to the Executive summary, the consultant did not find that there is a poisoned work environment in Essex Fire and Rescue Services. She did suggest that there were a number of problems that do need to be addressed as they relate to EFRS (Essex Fire and Rescue Services).


The report notes the consultant provided some recommendations as a result of the Confidential Workplace Assessment, as did Town administration.


This report in part one of two that will be provided to Council on the results of the Workplace Assessment. The second part will be provided to Council in a closed meeting, which will address recommendations that relate to identifiable individuals within Essex Fire.


In Parnega’s Executive Summary, it states “Based on the interviews I conducted, and the information provided to me, I do not find that there is a poisoned work environment at the Service. That said, I find that the Service is dysfunctional, particularly in Station 1, and that there are pervasive concerns throughout all three stations.”


A handful of members, Parnega outlined in her summary, believe the morale cannot, and will not, improve without significant staffing changes, others believe the issues are cyclical, concurrent with members’ “ages and stages,” and are not insurmountable.


“Unfortunately, there is a tendency for some members to overlook or discount the positive, and an inclination towards suspicion and [to] believe the worst. Many members had a swift and negative response to a recent promotion within the service, with strong allegations of favouritism and preferential treatment,” Parnega wrote, adding though she had not found concrete evidence of safety risks due to how fire administration and the Town conducts its business. A number of individuals raised a concern of lack of experience in certain leaders and premature promotions, which was a safety issue to them.


It continues that “There is a clear divide between members as to the seriousness of the problems that currently plaque the Services.


The 14 recommendations


As part of the document, 14 recommendations were provided. The consultant and Town administration provided them, while there was also reiteration from the 2017-2021 Fire Master Plan.


1. External Training. The consultant recommended training and promotions should be offered to all eligible firefighters. The report notes that currently, external training is primarily provided to those who require training related to their position or as regulations change. Members wishing to improve skills have taken additional training, with the cost being born by Essex Fire members or another entity outside the Town. A learning strategy, clearing defining parameters of training, will be developed for clarity. It is anticipated this would be implemented by January 1, 2019 as it will result in additional budget requirements.


2. Communications Training: The consultant recommended those firefighters with leadership roles and administration receive enhanced communication training. The report provided examples where lack of communication of facts, misinterpretation, or speculation has led to negative messaging. Leaders have an obligation to ensure information is factual, it noted. Dates for enhanced communication training will be forwarded to leaders of Essex Fire and Rescue by May 31.


3-5. Recommendations three through five dealt with diversity in the workplace and the Respectful Workplace Policy training. A more robust Respectful Workplace Policy was recommended. The report notes there were numerous statements made to the consultant in the interview process that illustrated a lack of understanding of that policy, specifically as it relates to the discrimination and protected grounds in the Human Rights Code.


It was recommended enhanced training on the Respectful Workplace and Diversity Training be provided to members of Essex Fire, and that the Town’s Respectful Workplace Policy be revised to note subtle, yet constant, undermining rumour and innuendo that creates strong feelings of negativity is not acceptable. Dates for the training will be forwarded to Essex Fire by May 31. Revisions to the Respectful Workplace Policy will be brought forward to Council by June 30.


6. Succession Plan (District Chiefs/Captains): Those with aspirations to advance need to be identified and prepared for Officers who may leave or retire. While succession planning does not guarantee promotion, it does provide further information on the hiring process. It was recommended fire administration, with the manager of Human Resources, develop a succession plan for implementation next January.


7. Communication policy revisions: The consultant recommended all members of Essex Fire and Council attend a re-training session on the Release of Information Policy, and other related policies. It notes indirect, passive-aggressive, negative messaging can be divisive and may compromise the service’s integrity and undermine any chance of repairing the rift between firefighters and fire admin. Dates for such training will be established by May 31.


8. Changes facing Fire Services: The consultant recommended an education session to focus on changes facing the Province and Fire Service’s resources and ability to meet those changes. Such a date will be determined by May 31.


9. Internal Training: It was identified in the 2017-2021 Master Fire Plan that a five-year training schedule be created, and that this schedule be communicated by June 30.


10. Live Fire Training Facility: There is such a temporary facility in Essex, in partnership with St, Clair College. There were mixed feelings about this noticed when conducting the assessment, the report notes. It was claimed firefighters have been injured while training at the burn house, however, the consultant was unable to confirm this. The only injuries to date have not been related to heat, but included a rolled ankle. It was recommended that live fire training continue, that guidelines and safety matters related to this facility be reviewed with firefighters whenever appropriate, an that consideration be given to a permanent facility when a new Station # 2 is constructed.


11. Development of Attendance Management System: The consultant’s report indicated many members of Essex Fire believe attendance for calls and training is down. Members shall attend at least 55 percent of all emergency responses per year, 75 percent of regularly scheduled semi-monthly training sessions, and 75 percent of squad weekly duties. The report showed, based on a provided table from 2015-17, that stations #2 and #3 had an increase in the members not meeting the minimum attendance for emergency response. Station #1’s attendance at emergency responses was poorer in 2017 than in 2015, but improved over 2016.  Hunter wants to look at the minimum requirements to see if they make sense and introduce an attendance management program. The new program is anticipated to be implemented by January 1, 2019.


12 & 13. Recruitment Process (District Chief/Captain): The method of recruiting these positions has changed. A grid is used to determine best candidates. It is recommended that the hiring committee for a District Chief include the Director of Community Services, Fire Chief, Deputy Fire Chief, and the Manager of Human Resources. For Captain, this will include the Fire Chief, Deputy Fire Chief, and the Manager of Human Resources. It was also recommended the job descriptions for firefighter, captain, and district chief be reviewed to ensure minimum requirements by June 30.


14. Equipment and Vehicles: It is recommended that if there are any concerns about self contained breathing apparatuses, those concerns should be brought forward to leaders within Essex Fire.

Council comments


Councillor Steve Bjorkman said it is difficult to respond to an anonymous letter, but it is important to get better. He was disappointed in the Executive Summary as it was more like a cover letter. He said he did not need to see the report in its entirety, but would like more information to get a better idea of what members are struggling with.


He suspected, from the issues brought forward, that overall it seems communication needs improving. He suggested “skip level” meetings where front line workers could meet with upper management, for instance.

He asked if firefighters know the recruitment requirements for promotion to Captain or District Chief.


Knowing what the Town is looking for will give those interested in advancement the tools to get prepared.

Hunter said she would like to have those grading discussions. Chief Arnel said that, to date, he had not discussed the grading process with personnel. When he was hired, there was no real set procedure. There is now a grading process that takes experience, related work experience, and education into consideration.


Bjorkman also spoke of the attendance management system. “A happy group shows up,” he suggested.

Councillor Randy Voakes would like to see a committee set up, comprised of Town administration, Council reps, and a firefighter from each station, to take care of any issues so they do not get compiled.


“It gives them [firefighters] a voice,” he said. “It is healthy and it is productive.”


Hunter said there are excellent Firefighters and a great Chief. She wanted the chance to implement the recommendations to start fixing the issues. She did not want to stick Council in the middle. She noted that other Town of Essex departments do not have committees. But, Voakes argued employees of the other departments at the Town “don’t always have life and limb on the line.”


Chief Arnel said his door is always open, but some individuals may not want to talk to the boss.  He said a process in the works for labour management meetings.


Councillor Sherry Bondy suggested Council receive the report, but wanted to wait on the recommendations until the closed meeting was held to discuss issues that could not be discussed in public. Hunter argued that the recommendations would not impact the second part of the process. She wanted to start resolving the issues.


“I just want to get going. I want this to get better,” she said.


Cost of report


Hunter said the cost of the report is currently unknown, but it will be made public when it is.


Mayor closed meeting with kind words


“We look up to you. It might not appear that way sometimes,” he said to the firefighters, adding there are 20,000 in the municipality looking for their support. “Hang in there. We are trying to improve the situation.”

© 2020 The Essex Free Press ltd.

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