(ESSEX, ON) – On October 26, 2017, an unidentified spokesperson for members of the Essex Fire and Rescue Services sent a very detailed, four-page letter to the town’s administration, Fire Chief, members of council, and the Ontario Fire Marshal. It’s a broad account highlighting several key issues that point in one direction; low morale.
A month later at the Essex Centre Sports Complex, investigator Jan Parnega, with Shearer Parnega LLP of Toronto, was interviewing volunteer firefighters and municipal staff associated with the department.
“I told firemen that they tell nothing but the truth. You stick to the facts,” said Essex Councillor Randy Voakes. Whether or not accusations made by the firemen are true or not, the theme is quite evident; a lack of leadership and poor decisions made by fire department administrators.
In a letter sent to all the firefighters at Station 1, Essex CAO Donna Hunter said that the town takes the allegations seriously and that is why they brought in a third-party investigator in Parnega.
“At the Town of Essex, we value the work that our firefighters do everyday, keeping our residents, businesses, and visitors safe,” Hunter wrote in a confidential letter.
Interviews were conducted on November 24 and 25 with members from Station 1, but also extended to those at the other two fire houses. The interviews were confidential and limited to current members of the Essex Fire and Rescue Services.
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Rick Desjardins ‘retired’ from the department three years ago, after joining in 1979 and being of the ‘rookies’ to battle the 1980 explosion.
“I sent an e-mail to the consultant. They have to request an interview with her, and I never got a response back,” said Desjardins. No doubt there are other former firefighters, like Captain Gary Smith, who would like to tell their stories. But, for now, they are being denied that opportunity.
“I’ve had a couple of heated conversations with the mayor and I don’t know if they led to the consulting or not,” said Desjardins. The letter from the firefighters, entitled Poisoned Work Environment, noted bad supervision and a need for change in multiple areas.
What will you do about it? I believe the first step would be to meet with your members, in the end, you owe them at least that. It’s time you take responsibility; the ball is in your court now. Until the work environment improves, you will continue to see low morale and a lack of involvement by your firefighters. – Essex Firefighters letter to the town
If the firefighters did come to that point where they wouldn’t answer the bell, like in North Huron, Essex would have to rely on the neighbouring communities.
“I had firemen telling me they won’t show up because the way they’re being treated,” said Voakes. And what do other council members have to say?
All of them were contacted and only mayor Ron McDermott did not respond.
Ward 1 Councillor Steve Bjorkman, who posed beside District Chief Rick Bonneau when the picture was taken for the local newspaper, and subsequently led to Bonneau’s suspension, said, “I don’t have any information I can share. I don’t have a comment.”
Ditto for deputy mayor Richard Meloche and councillors Sherry Bondy, Ron Rogers, and Larry Snively.
When I was a kid growing up on Victoria Ave. here in Essex, there was a big black bell above our back door. It would clang very loudly whenever there was a fire in town and our Dad would quickly head out the door.
He, along with neighbours Howard Wigle, Bud Pillon, and Archie Taylor, were WW II veterans and members of the Essex Fire Department. We never knew where Dad was headed or if he would return safe to us. And, he never talked very much about where they had been dispatched.
Their commitment to this community and dedication to the task is why I had so much respect for them and why I have so much respect now for our firefighters. It is very difficult, as a native and resident of Essex, to have to choke down the fact that District Chief Rick Bonneau was suspended.
Luckily we did not have a major structure fire or serious car accident to deal with, so I guess we dodged a bullet. Or did we?
Suspending Bonneau for a bogus reason no doubt was the final contributing factor to why our firefighters said, “Okay, that’s enough. We’ve got to deal with this as it is leading to very low morale.”
Now, the town’s Administration, council, and senior fire department personnel need to fix this and make sure the low morale is turned around.
How to do it
- If a firefighter has less than five years of experience and takes the courses and writes the tests, do not promote them to officer grade. Experience trumps book learning every time.
- When the report from the investigator is completed, share it with the public. Call a special meeting and personally invite our firefighters. I can guarantee that if the report is not made public, I will get a copy and post the details online.
- When you build a new fire hall, or get a new truck, and have the deputy-chief retro fit it, get input from the actual users; the firefighters.
- Senior administrators from town hall and council members need to go to Station 1, put on the bunker gear, and head to the water treatment plant where they do their training. Actually extinguish a fire.
- Contact Gary Smith and beg him to return.
- Return Sarah Newton to firefighter status. Trust me, she’s not ready to be a captain.
- Thank your lucky stars that District Chief Rick Bonneau and all the volunteer firefighters who continue to allow you to have a peaceful sleep every night, didn’t tell you to shove it and walk away.
- Feel free to contact me by email. [email protected]
Incompetence is one thing, ignorance is another.
This piece was originally published at Essex News Blog. Re-published with permission.